From One Aide - Memoire To Another

By Pauline van Mourik Broekman, 30 April 1999

Recently, a friend of mine described going for a walk with his father along the coast of Devon. It had been a warm Spring day – the birds were singing, the sun was shining and the sky was blue. Quizically, my friend's father said that this could just as easily have been the beginning of the century as its end: there they were, strolling along the hills and seashore of a peaceful Southern England, while far away 'something dodgy' was going on in the Balkans. They stared, confounded, at the silent unchanging mask the coastal landscape presented to them in the face of this situation.

Whatever you want to call the behemoth potentate that speaks through its medium Jamie Shae at NATO's regular briefings – The West, The Trans-Atlantic Alliance or The New World Order – it has found a pliant mechanism in history. After more than a decade of auspiciously complex and often violent post-Cold War Eastern European politics, which its hap-hazard gestural politics did little to ameliorate and much to sustain, Milosevic's refusal to sign the Rambouillet Accord allowed it to get in touch with its inner historian: the potentate breathed a heavy sigh of relief at its new-found clarity of purpose. As if by some pre-ordained ritual, the closets of World War I – and even more of World War II – were ransacked for all the argumentational fodder and gruesome imagery they could supply. The more recent past, which so cruelly shows up the glaring contradictions in its glowing liberatory rhetoric, was studiously avoided.

In Norman Davies's book Europe: A History the author talks about the instrumental role l'Oubli – a kind of strategic forgetting – plays in the formation of nationalism and national identity. You could say this notion perfectly illustrates the way in which Milosevic has managed to cast Serbia as the underdog, rather than the aggressor, in the former Yugoslavia. You could say that it helps half a dozen neo-imperialist states think of themselves as exemplary pillars of equality and democracy. You could also wonder whether computerised warfare, conducted – in keeping with the rules set out by General Colin Powell in the Gulf War – as a hi-tech, unilateral bombing campaign to ensure 'zero casualties' on the side of the attacker (at the very least before ground troops are sent in) has become the West's Machine d'Oublier.

Mute13 focuses on some of the independent media initiatives that came into being before and after the crisis in Kosovo. In March, Amsterdam saw hundreds gather at the Next Five Minutes conference on tactical media. In our section on the event, Ted Byfield asks how the transnational alliances forged there might function as organisational and political prototypes in the New World Order. Against the backdrop of a bi-lateral propaganda barrage, Agustin de Quijano speculates in the same section that, in these representationally challenged times, video and other forms of analogue media may be heading for a new lease of life. The rewind button may be beloved by those wishing to justify or forget, but ultimately the result of rewinding depends both on which film you put in the recorder and how you look at the screen.  Pauline van Mourik Broekman