@stevenpoole asked a really good question:
What exactly is the "news value" of a picture of a dead body that is not already contained in the information that said person is dead?
Do such images add "news value" to descriptions like:
In a cellphone video that went viral on the Internet, the deposed Libyan leader is seen splayed on the hood of a truck and then stumbling amid a frenzied crowd, seemingly begging for mercy. He is next seen on the ground, with fighters grabbing his hair. Blood pours down his head, drenching his golden brown khakis, as the crowd shouts, “God is great!”
When the news first came out about Gaddafi's execution, the photographs and video images did - not despite, but as evidence for, the analyses of Barthes and Sontag - provide a sense of confirmation, but this sense of confirmation may be adding something other than what I would understand by "news value"; its value lies elsewhere.
Another question to ask, clearly the follow-up to @stevenpoole's, is how those images are being used. What exactly is the value?
Clips of video footage shown on the Guardian and elsewhere (at various points, in various places, it's hard to keep up) stopped short of including all the original footage: someone correct me if I'm wrong, but the Guardian, with its familiar "Guardian video" entry graphics, did not show the part of the video where it was possible to see Gaddafi's hair being yanked. I raise this issue because in the Guardian footage I saw, it was not noted that this was an excerpt of a longer video: what was the reason for showing only a portion of it? What informed the decision to use only part of the footage? Were the considerations aesthetic, ethical, pragmatic? Legal? (Did they not have the right to show all of it?) That there are these multiple angles - aesthetic, ethical, pragmatic, legal - should not come as a surprise: that's what values are.
Elsewhere, bloody images were not being withheld. Today's New York Post is running an incredible front page. The headline roars, Khadafy Killed By Yankee Fan.
On the one hand, it's outrageously funny as grandstanding parochialism; and the weirdness of the parochialism is that it's not as if the New York Yankees are, I don't know, the Minot Minnows or the Charlottesville Festoons. Like Manchester United, the Yankees are a global fixture; they are exported pre-packaged in their pinstripes, their logo is familiar like Coca Cola or McDonalds, they rank up there with Elvis and Marilyn Monroe as figures in (and of) the American imagination. It is not evident that the man with the golden gun is a Yankees fan who avidly follows the ERA and batting averages of the Bronx Bombers, or even that he was the one who actually killed Gaddafi, but the image is a powerful one: a Yankees cap is a floating signifier of American globalisation, and the amazing thing about floating signifiers is where they come to rest. When I was living briefly in Calcutta, my commute took me under a billboard that read, "When Calcutta Speaks, the World Listens." And I used to think, "But that's not really true, is it?" A similar billboard in Times Square would not be true either - except that it would be sort of true?
The subheading on the front page is: Gunman had more hits than A-rod.
The extension of the headline into a far more local joke about a particular player can unite Yankees fans and those who hate the Yankees with a shared smile of disdain for Alex Rodriguez, inflected with misery and schadenfreude, respectively; but of course, celebrating the death of a dictator in this way is not merely a chance to reflect upon sporting loyalties or to mock a celebrity (and former beau of Kate Hudson and Cameron Diaz, and possibly Madonna), but is a comic nail hammered into the dictator's coffin, a bruising posthumous psychic swipe to add to the indignities and brutality of his death.
One might argue that what is at stake in this coy comedy of New York parochialism is the ghoulish pleasure to be had in a man's murder. But reducing the front page to a question of ethics risks missing a few points - which is not to say that ethical questions are irrelevant; not at all. It's how other values are being imported into, and with, the image.
First, as evidenced by the almost bizarre way in which this event is being reinterpreted as local news, there are local political values. This cover salves two tender Right Wing anxieties. So, the United States was not active enough in the liberation of Libya, content to "lead from behind" (see, for example, here)? Well, it was the Bronx Bombers, not French bombers, who sealed the deal. And does Obama "deserve credit" for this? No, the symbolic nexus of this act, the logo stamped across the execution, is not Barack's signature, it's the blue-blooded American New York Yankees. (One could even go a step further - I would be willing to do so - and point out that the additional dismissive contempt for A-Rod, a weird metonymy, might be tweaking at his "other" roots, as a Dominican, and, therefore, obliquely, metonymically, at Obama).
Second, and here we return to another comedy in the New York Post cover: the image of Gaddafi with his long, pallid face, his unruly, frizzy hair, and his blood-smeared mouth, is that of the clown.
The man already had a comic face, elongated and droopy -
- and with dictatorial flamboyance, he often cut a cartoonish figure -
Foucault and Zizek both considered why totalitarians are so often comic figures: it is a complete manifestation of power, not just because comic flamboyance treats every rule as potentially arbitrary and simultaneously locates the control over how and when the rule will become arbitrary in the figure of the comedian, but also as a message: I am so powerful, I don't even need to pretend to be dignified. In this light, it is no wonder that Blair's prissy but articulate and impassioned fretting was overshadowed by the mental doodlings of the "Texan" buffoon (in the oozing caramel-coloured synthetic paste that is Love Actually, the fantasy encounter between Hugh Blair Grant and Billy Bob Bush Thornton utterly misses this point). And so the Post's picture arrives as a visual epitaph; it is at once the realisation and the culmination of the fool. That's the story. Read it and gloat.