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In plainclothes

June 4, 2012

In early 20th century, and in the wake of WWI, khaki uniforms were adopted by world armies to merge with the earth and the forest, to hide from the lens of enemy’s enhanced optical devices, and overhead reconnaissance. Kittler writes about the unforgettable moment when in the seemingly empty unknown land before us we are suddenly confronted with the enemy in camouflage coats and “faces covered in mud like a ghostly apparition.” Thus disappearance from the field of representation is the privilege of the winning army. While before the WWI, it was the presence in front of the enemy that represented superiority and courage and disappearance from combat was sign of cowardice, or death. Now with the “new ability to deliver death precisely and from a safe distance required the fashioning of panoptic closets into which the soldier and his machines could slip undetected,” as suggested by Gina Nicole Giotta.

But while the use of optical media changed the aesthetics of battlefields, similar tactics are used by security forces in the face of civil unrest. Recent examples include the Iranian plainclothes officers, Mubarak thugs during the Egyptian revolution and the Shabiha forces in Syria. While in the national battles, camouflage techniques were adopted to hide from enemy’s optical warfare, security forces in civilian cloths are deployed by regimes to disclaim the conduct of atrocities and massacres in the face of global observers and citizens. This figure has gained a more prominent position in the omnipresence of [civilian] digital optical devices as the dirty deeds are all carried out now in front of cameras. This is a sheer aesthetic technique as its devised only to function within the picture plane. These agents are to be seen, but not to be distinguished, and attributed to the authorities. While the soldiers in the battlefield become earth, become trees, the security forces become civilians, or rather ghosts [of civilians] as the word Shabiha means in Arabic.

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