Burn Signifiers Burn!

Saddam's Body and the Neo-Materialism of the Iraqi War

As bodies burn, as lives cease, as families are torn, as corporate catechism preaches liberation while annihilating the principles of moral justice under the aegis of an emptied democracy signifier, I cannot but obsess over corporeality, of all things: the corporeality of Coalition soldiers powering through the desert with the speed of light [1]; the corporeality of nose-painted fighter jets bearing half-human, half-beast effigies of aggression and vengeance; the corporeality of 'smart' bombs into whose technological soul-less bodies the tragic art of dance-like war movement has been breathed; the corporeality of insatiable and disenchanted viewers turned embedded cheerleaders [2] catching war highlights over a TV-dinner; the corporeality of Iraqis being robbed of their lives by furtive Coalition thieves in the middle of the night; the corporeality of the millions of non-human species burning silently in the many ecological fires not hot enough to be news.

Meanwhile, back at home in the USA, a similar logic pervades the new hyperreal 'conjuration of imbeciles' gathered on TV: ABC's own 'Are You Hot?' Here too, bodies on display. Here too hyperreal bodies product of the marriage between consumer ideology, science, and technology, move in dance-like fashion on my screen [3]. These too are hot-burning bodies. Bodies burning calories, bodies burning in the tanning salon, bodies burning with 'hot' sexual allure. Fetishized bodies, as deeply (and yet superficially) fetishized as those of 'our boys' fighting for freedom in Iraq. Swiftly moving bodies all these are -- who apply the same logic of a crash calorie-burning diet to the three-week long light-speed war campaign. Seemingly, we are witnessing the triumph of the corpo-hyper-real, once again, in its spectacle of seduction and death (of the Other).

And yet, this is no corpo-hyper-reality, in the end. As posters, banknote-portraits, paintings, statues, wall-size photos of Saddam Hussein burn, crash, crumble, and die, the signified of these representations lives on. Saddam's body is nowhere to be found, trenched up in a hole from which it haunts us as the specter of semiotic modernity. Yes, the signified is not dead, and until it is undoubtedly so, the show of war, be it real or hyperreal [4], goes on.

Consequently, tapes of Saddam polluting televised air and spoiling allied hopes are all of a sudden nowhere to be found. Indeed, the Pentagon, the President, the soldiers, the viewers see in them nothing but representation, the lie of the sign [5], and reject them outright. Thus the administration's official policy to assassinate the bodies of Iraq's regime, Saddam's most urgently of all. Saddam's body, the signified, is what matters, let it be remembered. Ironically, today, postmodernity's highest crisis is met by modernity's strongest assurance: the primacy of the signified. And it is by its death and its death only that it can be resolved.


[1] See Paul Virilio, Vitesse de Liberation, London, New York: Verso, 1997.

[2] Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, "The Nihilism of War," CTheory, e122, 4/2/2003.

[3] This point is inspired by arguments in Paul Virilio, Guerre et Cinema, London, New York: Verso, 1989.

[4] For this argument see Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.

[5] Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976.

Phillip Vannini is a doctoral student in Sociology at Washington State University.