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An interesting article came through my email recently, forwarded to my grad program’s student listserv by my colleague Ergin Bulut. It was a piece by Huw Lemmey published in The New Inquiry entitled “Devastation in Meatspace.”

The essay starts out talking about the optics of war generally and how armies visualize their activities for themselves and the citizenry. Lemmey remarked on the way that “the mediated aesthetics of war have always tread a fine line between the banal and heroic, always used to justify, rightly or wrongly, the slaughter of young and old while always failing to really convey the profound and fleeting moment when a state chooses to end a human life, again and again and again a thousand times over.”

This points to the latest iteration of an old technology of vision, which reminded me of Caren Kaplan’s November 2nd talk at the University of Illinois, “Desert Wars: Virilio and the Limits of ‘Genuine Knowledge,’” in which she elaborated how mapping and eventually aerial surveillance was used to make sense of Mesopotamia and eventually Iraq during successive European and then American desert wars there.

But Lemmey was doing something more expansive. He contended that the contemporary practices of visualization of Israeli military action are “an extension of the historical ‘propaganda war’: control of the networked space online. The IDF have run a comprehensive social media campaign from the first stages of the new assault, announcing the assassination of Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari on Twitter, followed up by YouTube footage of his targeted killing within minutes.”

This is not just letting people see, then, or telling them what it is that they’re seeing, but something quite new. I call attention here to the use of the phrase “social media campaign,” terminology far more familiar in the context of marketing than that of providing a citizenry with the information they need about their government’s military actions. That is, while the rapid-fire nature of digital media can clearly be used to hold governments accountable and get out information to people to make decisions, this is something else again.

The link to marketing is not coincidental but actually the fulcrum for the shift Lemmey identifies. As he contends, “the images posted on Instagram and the infographics released across platforms form the core of the IDF brand; with a coherent visual theme, and consistency with the brand narrative, they are reimagining an urban conflict and occupation on a new consumer scale.”

This is not just nation-branding in the sense that has long been practiced as an incitement to tourism, but both narrower in scope (the military as national subset) and broader in dissemination (out to everyone, everywhere, simultaneously).

Lemmey’s biggest claim is that “liking and sharing IDF visual material becomes no more controversial than sharing your favourite Nike campaign — not a matter of politics, let alone ethics, but just another part of the construction of your online persona.”

This is the point at which the technological break with what Lemmey describes in the title as “devastation in meatspace” is complete. This information has become data, branding, decorative, has come to operate within the orbit of other fun and exciting technological things. And, on the model of the well-attested and expansively critiqued Israeli pinkwashing, I’d like to call it techwashing.

Pinkwashing is the term used in queer critique for the practice by which Israel plays up its gay-friendliness in a way that attempts to establish them as modern or advanced or forward-thinking and distract from more repressive aspects of their state policy on the basis of other categories of difference like race, ethnicity, or religion.

(Incidentally, the word pinkwashing is also used to describe the attachment of breast cancer awareness pink ribbons or pink coloring to a product to get people to buy it, even at times products with carcinogens in them. This makes me think maybe the gay one should be called rainbow-washing. Also, gay-related pinkwashing also happens in other places than Israel, like South Africa.)

The IDF social media campaign is thus usefully understand as the making same move as pinkwashing in a different arena. Thus, “we’re so gay-friendly, never mind that we also systematically deny rights to and chronically immiserate whole populations!” becomes “We’re so tech-savvy, never mind that we’re using this technological capacity to systematically deny rights to and chronically immiserate whole populations!”

Techwashing, like pinkwashing, like greenwashing before it, is ultimately a form of whitewashing. This is, on one hand, a metaphor about paint—the idea that you can slap a covering layer over unpleasant things and make them look nice.

But on the other hand these things are whitewashing—certainly with techwashing and pinkwashing, and maybe with greenwashing too—because they are deeply racialized. I mean, I know that race does not work in Israel quite like it works in the US context that I’m familiar with, but clearly the same structure is in play even if its component parts are defined differently.

These forms of -washing require a particular form of willful colorblindness, a refusal to see the racially disparate access to gay-friendliness or to the technological “wow” factor. Even more damningly, it requires obscuring the ways in which these forms of “modernity” act as bait-and-switch on tangible, meatspace, life-and-death human rights violations.

And ethically, it’s incumbent on us not to let that sleight-of-hand go unremarked.

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