The War Between Eye and Ear in the Assassination of John F. Kennedy
By John David EbertÂ
If one considers the possibility that it was indeed the CIA — or certain elements within the CIA — who decided to assassinate Kennedy, one is struck by the suspicion that the act itself was an indirect condemnation of television and televisual culture. The act has the feel about it of a rejection of the very idea of a televisual president, of the notion of a man’s being put into the White House largely as a result of beaming an electronic image of himself at lightspeed to millions of homes. And furthermore, when one considers that the power of this new medium was far from being politically neutral, but rather crippled certain individuals, like Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson, then one can begin to understand the kinds of resentment that the very idea of a man favored by television being put into office might have generated.
Television is a form of low resolution technology. Grainy, fuzzy, distorted, hazy images are spray-painted onto a gray-black screen where they can barely be discerned with the unaided eye (at least, back in the 1950s, anyway). As McLuhan pointed out, television is therefore highly participational, since it requires “fill in” by the viewer for the completion of its images, like a cartoon or a comic book. It is an image-based medium — albeit a medium of poor quality images — and it served Kennedy as the primary means for weaving himself together with his constituency out of a complexly interwoven meshwork of threads of light. With television, Kennedy (who was of Irish ancestry) was able to transform his administration into the equivalent of an electronic Book of Kells, in which he forged an American tribal identity based upon a tightly interwoven conception of himself as a chieftain at the head of his electro-serf peasantry. The American public, through the relationship which Kennedy created with them by means of television, felt very close to him, and that any decision he made on their behalf affected them directly. It is possible that no American president since Kennedy has had this sort of a relationship with his public.
On the other hand, the kinds of technologies favored by the CIA are profoundly alienating and disruptive of social cohesiveness. Such technologies, furthermore, are not primarily visual, but rather auditory in nature. Bugs, chips, recorders, hidden microphones, obscured listening devices. With the digging of the Berlin Tunnel, for instance, in 1953 — masterminded by William Harvey — wiretaps are put on a whole host of phone lines in East Berlin. The CIA is always listening in on someone somewhere. Their kind of technology, then, favors a non-visual bias. They use cameras, of course, but only as supplements to a wide range of highly differentiated listening devices. (Notice how, in the CIA biopic movie The Good Shepherd tape recorders are featured in scene after scene as the primary surveillance weapon of choice. And though photographs turn up every now and then as plot points, there are no cameras shown in the film at all).
So in order to counter Kennedy’s icon-based technologies, the CIA would, in Dealey Plaza, have had to create an invisible network of hidden technologies such as disguises, radioes and walkie – talkies. Thus, Kennedy’s pixilated image is trapped by an electronic matrix of pulse signals fired back and forth between radioes from the School Book Depository to the gunmen on the grassy knoll and to whatever other conspirators were loose upon the street below or hanging out by the triple underpass. In this way, they could communicate with each auditorily as though they were merely standing right beside one another; the electronic amplification of their voices, that is, enabled them to stand far enough back from each other to allow Kennedy to walk right into their midst, completely unaware of the invisible threads of communication connecting these men.
Kennedy did indeed walk right into this electronic trap. His ally, the ubiquitous Mechanical Eye, present in the form of the various 8 mm movie cameras and Polaroids and other such cameras, was unable to help him in this case, since the cameras could not perceive the hidden grid of electronic signals — together with false identities — surrounding him (although they would come to his aid later on for the piecing together of the assassination by conspiracy theorists).
Thus, in Dealey Plaza on that day, two kinds of technology were at war with one another: a covert technology of the ear, based upon hidden signals conspiring to help hide gunmen who had vanished into the anonymity of the crowd; and the various technologies of the eye, based upon one or another form of photography, which could see everything except the invisible electromagnetic signals, and therefore could avail Kennedy for once, nothing. Kennedy’s world had been based from start to finish upon clearly visible images: photographs in magazines, television appearances, public speeches. The world of the CIA, on the other hand, was based upon the use of technology to aid in various forms of invisibility: making people disappear, changing identities, blending into the shadows. (The photograph of the three tramps who may not be tramps at all is a classic instance of this). The CIA’s condemnation of a man who had based his career and his power upon the merely popular manipulation of images seems palpable here. Such a man is too obvious, they would have thought. Too shallow. He understands nothing of covert operations, or of the art of similitude, or the blending and blurring and manipulation of information in order to make people disappear.
Thus, when the dust cleared and the limousine had continued on through the triple underpass, everyone ran up the grassy knoll — as the filmed images show us –to find. . .no one. The shooters had gone. Disappeared into thin air.
Precisely the kind of magic trick the CIA had been training itself to do for years.
–Excerpted from John David Ebert’s forthcoming Death and Fame in the Age of Lightspeed.