On the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, here is a small piece of my first book, Virtual Geography (Indiana 1994) on it as a weird global media event. The proposition of that book was that one might understand the functioning of global media in those moments when its sustaining narratives broke down in the wake of events that initially at least did not conform to those narratives.
Such moments are weird global media events: weird because unexpected and inexplicable, global in that the media vector crosses borders and invokes a transnational geomedia space, media in that the space within which things happen is shaped by the form of the media vector, and events in that they are interruptions of a singular, non-recurring kind of time.
It was in short an attempt at a method for reading global media through its moments of interruption. The events studied in Virtual Geography were the occupation of Tiananmen square, the fall of the Berlin wall, the ‘first’ gulf war, and the stock market crash of 1987.
This was written in the now obsolete era of globalized satellite television news called into being by CNN. If anything the separation of a terrain of mediated news from the underlying geography of nation states has only accelerated since then. This is an historical development that began with the telegraph (as James Carey famously showed) and acquired more bandwidth, speed and flexibility as the media vector developed since.
“The fall of every figure with totalitarian power reveals the illusory community which approved him unanimously, and which had been nothing more than an agglomeration of solitudes without illusions.”
– Guy Debord
Dateline: East Berlin, 12th November 1989: East German workers tear down a section of the Berlin wall with heavy cranes, opening a crack in the wall at the centre of old Berlin, the Potzdamerplatz. Thousands of East Berliners poured through the gap, across the site of the old Potzdamerplatz, once a busy and historic centre of the city. West German authorities in Berlin hand out maps and shopping money to the Easterners. The Mayor of East Berlin, Erhard Krack and his West Berlin counterpart, Walter Momper push through the crowd on the Potsdamerplatz to shake each others’ hand. Krack presents Momper with a model of the traffic light — Berlin’s first — that had formerly stood on the site in 1924. Meanwhile many thousands climb the wall and party; champagne and music in the air.
The media quickly capitalised on this event. The Guardian newspaper announced: “Europe seems to be a different place this week.” On the American television news program NBC Today, cold war veteran Arthur M. Schlesinger jr announced that the cold war was ‘over’. Gorbachev made a statement in Moscow: “Not long ago we were at the crossroads — where was the world going? Towards further confrontation, the aggravation of ideological hostility, the whipping up of military threats; or towards co-operation, mutual understanding and the search for agreement? The choice has more or less taken place.”
The curious thing here is the grammatical construction: Schlesinger did not say, “we ended the cold war” but “the cold war is over.” Gorbachev did not say “we made our choice” but “the choice has taken place.” Lines phrased in the passive voice. Events proclaimed without causes at their head.
If the cold war has indeed ended, it had nothing to do with the rational decisions or dialogue between the parties. Events did not appear as the outcome of particular or definable leadership actions. The historical end has simply “taken place.” The place history took was a stretch of wall running from Checkpoint Charlie to the Brandeburg gate in Berlin, via what used to be Potzdamerplatz. It ran, in other words, from the symbolic arch famous from the history books as the one Napoleon marched through victoriously, to a place made famous from spy movies of the cold war years as the site for those tense exchanges of agents with the enemy. But it was not so much ‘history’ that took this place, but the ‘angel of history’ — the international television camera, and the particular storyline it makes take place — the event. The comsat angel forms an image out of the rubble blasted from the past into the present. It frames an image of the crash of moments.
NBC news interviewed the Mayor of West Berlin. It turned out, conveniently enough, that he spoke excellent English. His head and shoulders appeared on the screen with the wall in the background, and the caption underneath said simply: ‘Berlin’. On closer inspection, it turned out that the Mayor wasn’t actually standing in front of the wall at all, as pictured. NBC chromakeyed his image together with live footage of the wall, and mixed sound recorded at the wall with his answers to the off-camera reporter’s questions. The Mayor was in a studio somewhere, presumably in West Berlin, while the image behind him showed the wall from the East side. The lighting of the Mayor’s talking head was designed to match that of the wall, but did not succeed entirely in mimicking that peculiar second hand daylight of Northern Europe.
The caption ‘Berlin’, placed underneath by NBC was not actually referring to the physical space of Berlin itself. It referred to an electronic space constructed in the studio, which mixed images made on the East and the West sides of the wall into a single vital centre. There was no great ‘distortion’ of the facts of the situation here. If anything, this simulated non-fact seemed a more appropriate rendering of the situation than a more straightforwardly representational image would have been. This was simply a matter of contriving the Mayor and the wall together to form an appropriate image in the easiest way possible. In the electronic space of NBC Today, the wall had already come down, and images from both sides could be combined by the vision-mixer. NBC rearranged the furniture of the site to suit itself. The wall itself may still be standing, but it is no barrier certain vectors and flows of information, if indeed it ever effectively was.
The fall of the wall was as much a problem for the media as it was for the municipal and state authorities on either side of the breach. In its role as global vision-mixer, the various media were in a bit of a state as to which visions to mix. Three narrative lines dominated the commentary on this event as it happened. Each relied on a set of simple narrative conventions, generated out of a relatively stable structure of very basic elements. I am tempted to call these elements ‘vectemes’, only they are more lines of narrative movement than elements of interchangeable structures. The first of these three narrative movements of event-containment is ‘the cold war’ — a favourite with the American vector-brokers, and scintillatingly televisual. The good guys were the West and the bad guys were the communists — and they had just collapsed as an antagonistic pole of power. Archival footage showed the wall going up… and coming down. The juxtaposition of some ghostly black and white stock footage of Hitler, Stalin, Rooseveldt and of their tank divisions gave this cold war story the grain of media history. If the wall coming down was not the result of a discernible leadership action, at least the wall going up looked like it was.
The cold war narrative frame was perhaps the easiest to pronounce upon but the most difficult to grasp in any meaningful way. While the television coverage did not trouble itself with the details of this shift in the balance of power, it did inevitably pose a difficulty for itself in adopting a triumphalist stance. If the Eastern other has collapsed, how does the West define itself and the necessity of its massive armed response to the threat of the Eastern other? It took another catastrophe — the gulf war event — to untangle some of the narrative debris of the post-cold war power game. As Zygmunt Bauman argues, the collapse of the Eastern ‘other’ left the space of otherness to the West open. The combined power of military and media vectors showed in the gulf war that the other can become any state, and force, anywhere in the globe: Panama, Granada, Libya, Lebanon, Iraq. Stay tuned to CNN for ensuing episodes….
Less triumphalist was a second narrative strategy for the containment of this event. The ‘people’ formed the narrative core of the second, and perhaps most common framing. In this version, the communists were still the bad guys, but it was the people of the East who were the active agent who overthrew the tyrant. Whereas the time frame for the cold war narrative was a matter of decades, in this version it could all be compressed to a matter of days. If the satellite feed needed an historical grounding, then a couple of grainy images of the 1953 riots in the Russian sector, shot from the West and showing Potzdamerplatz and the other side of the Brandenburg gate would do. The mix could montage these with comparable shots showing those sites today, from the same angle. The same amorphous, humanist swell of ‘the people’ could thus be pictured, milling about today, sans tanks.
Cut to a vision-mix of supple, ineluctable crowd shots, defying the bristling porcupine skin of the armed state with their movement. The mass, by virtue of its impenetrable, obtuse obviousness, was something upon which every Western ideological angle could be projected. Any and every demand could be projected onto the crowd: liberal democracy, conservative restoration, social radicalism, free markets, twin overhead cam fuel injected turbocharged power. Liberals, conservatives, leftists and marketing managers alike could claim this crowd as their own. Indeed a lively discourse sprang up overnight in the West, trying to pin this wandering mass down as a free-floating story that might drift opportunistically over to support this or that new narrative line. With a little judicious editing, the AWOL image of the Easterners dispensing their own liberty and decamping to the West were corralled into new containments and captures in the narrativizing aftermath of the event.
Cut to a one-shot of a ‘typical East Berliner’, microphone angled to the face. The image of the people could easily be captured — shots of crowded squares and streets filled the screen. Attempts to make the image talk were another matter. When interviewed individually, they never seemed to know what was expected. Their statements were always a little less and a little more than ‘representative’ views. “it’s unfathomable” according to a 51 year old man. “I can’t believe I’m here” says an elderly East Berliner. “This is what we have dreamed of for all these years” says another, or “I can’t describe it” says a young woman with tears in her eyes. Frank, endearing, but not exactly helpful.
Perhaps we can excuse them for this. They were not professional talking heads. It is the professional’s role to guess the trajectory of the story and provide the lines that link the immediately witnessed action to the imagined plot. The amateurs, these non-representative representatives of the people were not telling a story, they were living, and enlivening, an event. It was left to Helmut Kohl: “Let us avoid the temptation to assume that a solution to the German question can be arranged in advance with a script and a calendar. History doesn’t follow a schedule.” But Helmut Kohl certainly does. It says in his script “there is no script” and the press conference was scheduled for him to say “there is no schedule.” Politics is certainly rather more opportunistic than Kohl’s mythical ‘history’, but no less organised, it seems. Even the populist narrative that claims to follow the moods and tempers and nightmares of the people is still a story after all. It is one which keeps one eye on its audience and modifies its tale as it goes along to suit their expressions. One almost imagines Walter Benjamin had someone like Kohl in mind when he said that: “History knows nothing of the evil infinity contained in the image of the two wrestlers locked in eternal combat. The true politician reckons in dates.”