Friday, January 27, 2006

Slavoj Zizek ~ Jack Bauer and the Ethics of Urgency


The fifth season of "24," the phenomenally successful Fox television series, premiered on January 15. Composed of 24 one-hour episodes, the show chronicles the workday of the fictitious L.A.-based Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU) as it desperately attempts to thwart a catastrophic terrorist attack. (In season four, they stopped a stolen nuclear weapon from exploding above a major U.S. city.) The "real-time" nature of the series confers a strong sense of urgency, emphasized by the ticking of a digital clock and accentuated with hand-held camera shots and split-screens showing the concurrent actions of various characters.

Even the commercial breaks contribute to this sense of urgency: Before a commercial, we see an on-screen digital clock signalling it is "7:46." When the action resumes, the digital clock reads "7:51." The length of the break in our, the spectators', real time is exactly equivalent to the temporal gap in the on-screen narrative, as if the events nonetheless go on as we watch commercials. This makes it seem like the ongoing action is so pressing, spilling over into the real time of the spectator, that even commercial breaks cannot interupt it.

This brings up a crucial question: What does this all-pervasive sense of urgency mean ethically? The pressure of events is so overbearing, the stakes are so high, that they necessitate a suspension of ordinary ethical concerns. After all, displaying moral qualms when the lives of millions are at stake plays into the hands of the enemy.

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