Cultures in Orbit: Satellites and the Televisual

Lisa Parks,
Cultures in Orbit: Satellites and the Televisual.
Duke University Press, 2005.
ISBN: 0 8223 3461 5 US$79.95 (hb)
ISBN: 0 8223 3497 6 US$22.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Duke University Press)

In “pre-reading” Cultures in Orbit, that inevitable anticipatory process in the imagination where one uses the title and synopsis to project the contents and arguments of a book prior to cracking open its first page, I expected something rather different. The topic itself should surprise no one. A cursory recall of contemporary news coverage as well as of films like Enemy of the State (USA, 1998), recent additions to the James Bond franchise or of television shows like 24, vividly demonstrates the prevalence of satellite imagery in the mass media and thus in the public imagination. Not only do these texts in particular highlight satellite technology, but the structure and speed of their narratives also depend vitally on it. I also presumed that the book might heavily reference and continually dialogue with Paul Virilio, whose work deals precisely with the connections between technology, visual perception, postmodernity and the everyday.

Author Lisa Parks does illuminate much about how we make sense of satellite images and how those meanings are generated. But I was also pleasantly surprised by the extent and manner in which she defied my initial expectations. She examines an admirably wide range of texts and extends the discussion beyond the issues within my obviously narrow first impressions. Like the very subject of the book, her discursive analysis of satellite images consists of an ambitious project unbound by geography. It is a remarkably interdisciplinary work that traverses vast terrain and crosses all kinds of borders with a clearly defined purpose and meticulously constructed arguments.

The book references Virilio but only briefly, primarily in a chapter on how the United States State Department and military used satellite images as evidence of the July 1995 Bosnian Serb massacre and subsequent burial in mass graves of thousands of Muslim men in Srebrenica. They were used as evidence of Serbian aggression and barbarism, and subsequently became an important early cornerstone of an information campaign that eventually justified the American-led NATO intervention in the region. Parks appropriates Virilio very selectively, for his ideas of “eyeless vision” (98) – automated gazes from satellites for instance, that weaponize the act of seeing – and “strategies of deception,” where “satellite images of mass graves at once serve the seemingly antithetical strategies of denying knowledge and claiming omniscience” (96). This section serves to reinforce the contention that when satellite images are mobilized in television war coverage, they take on simultaneous and contradictory auras of omniscience, objectivity and proximity. In other words, via satellite images, the truth of an event like what occurred in Srebrenica, can be elusive or simply inaccessible.

Virilio’s Strategy of Deception is a critique of the U.S.-led NATO intervention in the Balkans. It argues that the conflict demonstrates a new kind of war strategy where battles are waged to achieve what the American military terms “Global Information Domination” rather than territorial control. Both Parks and Virilio emphasize the distance between the truth and what was presented to the public about the war, but with a key difference. Rightly or wrongly, Virilio takes a stand against the Western military intervention in Kosovo. One can reasonably debate whether his preoccupation with American military ethics overlooks the crucial matter of real atrocities committed by multiple sides in the Yugoslav crisis, or whether he sufficiently holds Serbian nationalism and its pogrom accountable for its consequences. The point is, he takes a clear moral and political position.

In contrast, Parks demurs from making such judgments. Examining the issues in terms of mass media discourse, she very specifically addresses how the highly contingent knowledge of foreign events is managed by powerful institutions and then received by Western citizens and viewers. Citing conflicting accounts of what happened on the ground, Parks highlights:

The impossibility of knowing what exactly happened in Srebrenica in July 1995 and to come to terms with my own imperfect attempt to make sense of the events, relying perhaps too readily on quick-fire journalism and media sound bites. We know that something horrific happened there, but each political interest puts its own spin on the event in order to extract a strategic maximum from it. Again, this chapter is not a search for the truth of the Srebrenica massacre. (87)

Fair enough. It is perfectly reasonable to delineate clear boundaries in one’s thesis. This move in the book’s argumentation does not detract from its intellectual rigor and the quality of its research. Nevertheless, the unmistakable and convenient deference to the fog of war holds two consequences. The first recounts the critique of Virilio’s Strategy of Deception, particularly the likelihood that a fixation on the ethical lapses and the dishonesties of the NATO endeavor can hide the atrocities that as Parks acknowledges, did happen. Although the evidence to my following claim is entirely anecdotal and based on personal conversations, it strikes me that assuming the impossibility of knowing what happened in Srebrenica sounds perilously close to a logical tautology adopted by parties sympathetic to Serbian nationalism, that if no one knows what happened, then nothing did happen – in a way, isn’t that why bodies are hidden in the first place?

Secondly, the book’s ambivalence or ambiguity on this matter leaves it and its poststructuralist methodology open to the usual criticism of ethical relativism leveled from various directions, namely by reactionary voices as well as those from the Critical Theory camp. A critic might be able to further this argument briefly by looking at the chapters on “Satellite Archeology” and “Satellite Panoramas.” Their considerations of television as “not just an ideological system in a cultural Marxist sense,” but “also an epistemological system in a Foucauldian sense” (163) faintly hints at a contestational strategy comprised primarily of oppositional reading and interpretation.

“Satellite Archeology” claims that the “scientific” use of satellites in the excavation of Cleopatra’s palace in Alexandria, Egypt, “must be understood in relation to ‘cultural’ discourses that construct Cleopatra as a sexual spectacle, site of racial ambiguity, and monument of Western civilization” (111). “Satellite Panoramas” looks at the multi-episodic saga of the Hubble Space Telescope, and demonstrates how the mass media narrativized and historicized the events with a Western humanist paradigm in an epistemological, scientific and cultural sense. Hubble’s coverage of the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet fragments’ collision with Jupiter for example, assumed the generic conventions of “catastrophe television” (144).

However, Cultures in Orbit‘s partiality to discursive analysis and social constructivism can be deceptive. It dismisses neither Marx nor historical materialism, but posits its methodology as one that works in partnership with the others. The enlightening work on Imparja TV shows that. I might be revealing a tinge of my own Eurocentrism in the following assumption about Australian Aborigines, but, in an unlikely – and thus more intriguing – subaltern community, Parks uncovers an instance where a social minority earned self-autonomy over their cultural and territorial landscape by winning the license for a satellite television network (Imparja) that serves a vast geographical area of Australia. In so doing, she indelibly links self-determination to ownership, if not of production then certainly of distribution. It leaves clear coordinates for the kind of strategy that similar quests for autonomy or revolution should take.

In this context, any possible concerns about how the book lacks a materialist edge are ameliorated. If Imparja TV’s success is to enlighten or be emulated, perhaps it would be beneficial to learn the details of satellites’ ownership structure: Who owns them, who uses them and how? After learning about the character of institutional discourse, the follow-up question would naturally be about the institution. One comes away confident that it is the book’s next mode of inquiry as well.

Cultures in Orbit covers a lot of ground. Perhaps the illustrations in “Satellite Archeology” lacked a better sense of how satellite images themselves are used – it seems redundant at this point in time to show media images of (Cleopatra’s) Orientalism and sexualization. But it is another quibble in what is an impressive work that is extraordinarily efficient as well as readable, for a project of this breadth and depth.

Gerald Sim
University of Iowa, USA.

Created on: Tuesday, 7 March 2006 | Last Updated: 7-Mar-06

About the Author

Gerald Sim

About the Author

Gerald Sim

Gerald Sim is Assistant Professor of Film Studies at Florida Atlantic University, where he specializes in American cinema, national cinema and critical theory. He has a recent essay about postcolonial cinema and spatiality in Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, and a forthcoming historiographical account of digital cinematography in Projections.View all posts by Gerald Sim →