Can We Leave the Atrocity Exhibition? Media Coverage of the London Attack

Police and other emergency responders gathered on Westminster Bridge, where a driver mowed down pedestrians, in London, March 22, 2017. An attack near the British Parliament left at least three people dead and 20 others injured on Wednesday afternoon. A man believed to have been an assailant died after being shot by the police. (Photo: Andrew Testa / The New York Times)Police and other emergency responders gathered on Westminster Bridge, where a driver mowed down pedestrians, in London, March 22, 2017. An attack near the British Parliament left at least three people dead and 20 others injured on Wednesday afternoon. A man believed to have been an assailant died after being shot by the police. (Photo: Andrew Testa / The New York Times)

Writing with considerable foresight, the author J.G. Ballard coined the term “The Atrocity Exhibition” to emphasize the changing influence the media was having on all human relations, especially the ethical challenges faced when witnessing tragedy. As Ballard famously wrote:

The media landscape of the present day is a map in search of a territory. A huge volume of sensational and often toxic imagery inundates our minds, much of it fictional in content. How do we make sense of this ceaseless flow of advertising and publicity, news and entertainment, where presidential campaigns and moon voyages are presented in terms indistinguishable from the launch of a new candy bar or deodorant? What actually happens on the level of our unconscious minds when, within minutes on the same TV screen, a prime minister is assassinated, an actress makes love, an injured child is carried from a car crash? Faced with these charged events, prepackaged emotions already in place, we can only stitch together a set of emergency scenarios, just as our sleeping minds extemporize a narrative from the unrelated memories that veer through the cortical night.

 Contemporary life is largely shaped by the digitalization of such atrocities, which now exhibit in real time a continuous stream of violent occurrences directly into the palms of our hands. This is how many of us have come to see and relate to the world. Consciousness itself is now atrocious.

Turning us into producers of content and forced witnesses to human suffering on a daily basis, our sleeping minds are often violently interrupted as if we are continuously playing out the…

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