Robin Hood: The Grandmaster of Thieves

A couple months ago I finally got a chance to see the latest Hollywood adaptation of Robin Hood (Ridley Scott, 2010). I’m not a big Russel Crowe fan, and Hollywood mega battles in the post-Braveheart era have gotten depressingly tiresome; rather, I consider it important to stay abreast of what the culture industry is doing with one of the most persistent legends of rebellion in the anglophone tradition.

It was a foregone conclusion the story would be recuperated, but I wanted to discover how. The prior adaptation (Kevin Costner’s) utilized a patriarchal lense to revise the Robin Hood legend as a multifaith quest to restore traditional masculinity against the perversions of a tyranny in the service of witchcraft. The evil King John is absent; instead we have the Sheriff of Nottingham as the son of an evil witch and a pretender to the throne, ultimately killed by a Robin Hood character who charitably aids the poor but is himself a wrongfully dispossessed nobleman. The Muslim character, played by the much abused Morgan Freeman (ever a willing guide and narrator in the self-actualization of his co-starring white men), symbolizes the inclusion of Islam in Western Civilization (jumping the gun a bit, for this pre-September 11th film), so it’s no coincidence he gets to kill the witch. In the end, Robin Hood is restored to his estate and marries the Maid, one assumes the poor become happy spectators to their lord’s good fortune, and King Richard, in the end, does not die in France but arrives just in time for the wedding, to bless this tale’s recuperation and throw in, for good measure, a long favoured bourgeois motif, the archetype of the returning king.

Fortunately for everyone, Mel Brookes’ parody humorously neutralized this telling, wiping the slate clean.

So how would the Ridley Scott version flip the story in a way that revalidates authority? That in itself is a story. The original script, I learn from IMDB, features Nottingham’s Sheriff as the protagonist. Ridley Scott rejected the storyline, which Russel Crowe likened to a CSI: Sherwood Forest. The next potential telling has Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham as the same person. At this point we can note that Hollywood, which is no stranger to at least seemingly rebellious storylines, in Robin Hood’s case only considers the most sycophantic of plots laden with traditional, law-and-order values. I wonder: if we weren’t in the middle of an economic crisis, would they have still avoided telling a story in which the poor arm themselves to steal from the rich?

In the end, after spending millions of dollars on the script alone, what angle does the director settle on to recuperate this anti-authoritarian tale? (Spoiler Alert!) I never would have guessed: masons! That’s right, freemasons!

Halfway through the film, which begins in France on the return from the crusades, it is revealed that “Robin Longstride’s” father was not just a commoner but in fact a stonemason who authored a charter of rights restricting the arbitrary power of the king. Barons across England rallied in support of this charter, but in the end the king rejected it and had the humble stonemason killed. In a blatant reference to masonic occultism, one scene shows how he had secretly engraved the charter on the underside of a stone in one town’s central fountain.

On learning his lost heritage (another masonic motif), Russel Crowe takes up his father’s cause and mobilizes the barons to pressure King John to accept this charter. In a key moment, Crowe argues that if he does, the King will not only have the obedience of the people, but also their love.

The Crown concedes, political reunification is achieved, and the English military rallies just in time to defeat a (non-historical) French invasion. Significantly, the lost boys of Sherwood Forest, orphans and victims of poverty who will eventually become the “Merry Band” and expropriate their exploiters, come to the battle to fight the French proles on behalf of the English Crown.

This is a fascinating retelling of the Robin Hood legend both for its novelty and its lucidity in expressing core masonic values. To understand this significance, it might be helpful to first explain the importance of the freemasons to the capitalist project.

The freemasons are not, as far as I know, an effective global conspiracy. They probably surpass Opus Dei as a fraternity of the ruling class, which says something but not much. They are, however, a vital expression of the bourgeois imagination and its historical understanding of itself.

Contrary to the traditional view of capitalism as a progressive rebellion against the feudal aristocracy, capitalism was born out of a fusion of the merchants and patricians with the old order, at a time when peasant and worker rebellions were endangering the existence of the aristocracy, the Church, and all authoritarian structures. Quite literally, the wealthy families married into the nobility while partially supporting certain rebellions to shake up the conservative power structure, discard the obsolete elements, and empower progressive elements who could build around them the beginnings of a new, dynamic, centralized State. This Machiavellianism stood in direct contrast to the conservative, thick-blooded chivalry of the old order, and in fact the knights, as the obsolete military class, were among the first to go.

The Protestant Reformation, with its use and then betrayal of more radical players, is the quintessential study in bourgeois realpolitik, and also the template for reform and counterrevolution in the centuries to come, visible even in the strategy of the Leninists.

This practice, which is basically just studied opportunism, finds its way into the exaggerated mythologies of the bourgeois imagination that see small, conspiratorial groups orchestrating the movements of the masses. (Ye gads: could Alex Jones be a Mason? Pass it on.)

At the same time as the bourgeoisie ascended to power, they also needed to invent themselves a history, and much of the lauded artistic production of the Renaissance was something like the well dressed forgery of an impressive pedigree that would allow the merchant class to sit at the table with the likes of kings without polluting the spectacular apartness of the ruling class.

As such, the freemasons are the bourgeois organization par excellence, because of their production of upper class fraternity (note that this is a gradated fraternity stressing advancement and ranking), their conspiratorial pretensions, and their claims to an ancient tradition of wisdom and power.

That bourgeois mythology would claim both the story of Robin Hood and the Magna Carta shows their predilection for cryptically unified narratives (a replacement for the mysteries of the Church, which was being depaganized at this time and thus losing the greater part of its charm). It also supports the hypothesis of a synthesis rather than antithesis between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. Though they hardly existed at the time, the bourgeoisie see themselves in those English barons at Runnymede, who, in 1215, forced King John to sign the Magna Carta (and later the Charter of the Forest, which is generally left out of the histories because it acknowledged legal recognition of the Commons, which later had to be destroyed by enclosure for capitalism to establish itself).

The Magna Carta, or Great Charter, was one of the most important first steps in the evolution of constitutional democracy. Notably, it was a product of ruling class unification rather than popular rebellion, as argued in the pamphlet “What Is Democracy?”

In Robin Hood, we find the ostensible rough draft of the Magna Carta written not by a noble but by a freemason, and presented as a popular demand for justice. This portrayal reveals yet another masonic archetype, the rebellion that restores order, which is also the basic strategy of cultural recuperation followed by Hollywood when making films such as this one.

Rebellion must appear at least occasionally as a storyline, because, if the anarchist thesis is correct, people innately desire rebellion against authority. Thus, authority must give them that rebellion but as a commodity to be consumed, embedded within an ethical framework that reinforces less obvious, more bedrock power structures, such as patriarchy or the nation-state.

Nationalism itself is another important feature of freemasonry. Similar to the capitalist idea of the pursuit of individual interests fulfilling the common good, masons are nationalistic internationalists, promoting a certain world order that is held together in large part by the lower classes of various nations fearing and hating on each other.

In this Ridley Scott film, power achieves its greatest accomplishment—winning the exuberant participation of the hyperexploited, the lumpen, in the national project—when the patriotic fear of a French invasion mobilizes the Sherwood Forest rogues to fight for the English aristocracy.

At the end of the film, King John reneges on his promise, and does not sign the charter. The viewer understands that Robin Hood will have to go off and become an outlaw, yet in this scenario the motivation is not exploitation but the inefficiency of government in pursuing its own project. King John, not surprisingly, is portrayed as capricious and indulgent, in other words, as a bad ruler. In the vengeful eyes of the barons, Russel Crowe’s earlier promise that the king would not only be obeyed but also loved by his subjects reveals itself as a warning to the ruling class project of domination on how to avoid popular hatred and opposition.

Thus, in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, we find not only the dramatic device of a rebellion that restores order, but, quite beyond that, a rebellion that instructs the ruling class on how to avoid future rebellions. In sum, this film was a complex and intelligent expression of bourgeois mythology and discursive strategies. Even better is the poor reception it got among the unwashed masses for being boring, implausible, and censored of everything that might allow an audience consisting mostly of underdogs to sympathize with this legend.

Recuperation: fail. This rendition doesn’t even merit a parody. As long as poor folk keep knocking off banks, the Robin Hood legend retains its power and potential. We’ll see how good the next version is, in another twenty years (assuming Scott doesn’t shoot for a sequel).

Notes on the “Human Strike” or the “Grève humaine”

Despite the paradoxical nature of inhabiting an oppositional position of being within language, that “permeable membrane between life and desires, where it clearly appears that life and desires are made of the same fabric” (Reena Spaulings) – the term “Grève humaine” or the “Human Strike” has for better or worse become a reified concept within the contemporary rhetoric of what perhaps we can call “communization theory” (Tiqqun, The Invisible Committee, Claire Fontaine, Theorie Communiste, Bernadette Corporation, Reena Spaulings, et al). Informed by much of the tension surrounding 1970’s Italian militant feminism (i.e. Lotta Femminista) and the much broader Operaismo and Autonomist movements, the human strike finds itself retroactively defined in such conflict perhaps most notably by the contemporary Parisian ready-made-artist collective, Claire Fontaine. Thus, through explicitly acknowledging this historical indebtedness, Claire Fontaine argues that “the concept of ‘human strike’, as well as the [Italian] feminists’ aggressive silences, were born out of militant contexts, in which some mobilize in order to block total mobilization. The human strike is meant to reveal the way in which the temporality of struggles is conditioned and colonized by the official temporality, and also with regard to affects, behaviors, daily existence, in short” (Claire Fontaine). Here “temporality” becomes synonymous with ontology, as the human strike aims to destroy the external delineations of being which are yoked upon subjectivity. Through the inscription of control finding its locus on the body (biopower) and the totalizing fabrication of the commons (spectacle), the “human” is thus transformed into a bare-life (Agamben), that which is an unqualified and merely-existent life (zoe). This reductivist process becomes the basis for “communization theory’s” subtle reappropriation of the Negriist conception of Empire, of which this notion of “official temporality” is a part.

The human strike is inherently desubjectivist in that it, “attacks the economic, affective, sexual and emotional positions within which subjects are imprisoned” (Reena Spaulings). These are ultimately positions of being, which are a part of the state-as-sovereign’s (that which is paradoxically both within and outside of the law) ability to so effectively dictate and expand the limits of control precisely through the Foucauldian notion of biopower acting as the means in which even externalized coercion becomes a part of a form-of-life’s own subjectivity – essentially a self-policing, an entrapment within certain subjective identification. Thus, the human strike represents an oppositional exploration of de-essentialized subjective potentialities, which to certain extent are unconcerned with claims to objectivity (as it makes no aspirations to reiterate the already recuperated discourse of postmodernism), but more critical of the way in which “individual subjectivity” becomes the main site of the acquiescence to external control. The human strike becomes an oppositional desubjectivization towards a more defiantly singular resubjectivization.

As the human strike also attacks “sexual and emotional positions” one must first explore this concept’s relationship to the “libidinal economy.” Appropriated from Lyotard’s libidinal philosophy, “communization theory” uses the libidinal economy as a means to underscore how desire has ostensibly become recuperated and reconstructred under Empire. As Claire Fontaine claims: “what is at stake in the capitalistic vision of the world is a continuous production of a libidinal economy in which behaviors, expressions and gestures contribute to the creation of this new human body.” Within this libidinal economy, it no longer is merely a repression of authentic desire (which would ostensibly lend support to the Freudian notion of the “return of the repressed”), rather it is now for all intensive purposes a supplanting of desire which becomes reconstituted into “this new human body.” Contextualized against this reconstitution, the human strike “never attacks relations of production without attacking at the same time the affective knots which sustain them. Which undermines the shameful libidinal economy of Empire…” (Tiqqun) These “affective knots” represent an exchange-relationship of desire (a libidinal economy), that within us which binds us to our own exploitation – a biopolitics where it is no longer necessary for the state-as-sovereign to use the vulgar discourse of physical force to control. The codification, exchange, commodification, and supplantation of this desire through this capitalistic libidinal economy has effectively changed the psychosexual terrain of coercive power. Forms-of-life now no longer fear the potentiality that the state-as-sovereign could kill them (libidinal intensity away from death, but rather within this late-capitalist libidinal economy, forms-of-life now acknowledge the state-as-sovereign as that which allows them to live (libidinal intensity towards life), which the modern welfare state embodies. Thus, the human strike attempts to abrogate the ways in which forms-of-life interact with the alterity of inauthentic desire and prescribed libidinal intensities.

The human strike is therefore situated against that within the subjectivities of forms-of-life which are fundamentally representative of hegemonic libidinal value. As Claire Fontaine writes: “The term ‘human strike’ was forged to name a revolt against what is reactionary even – and above all – inside the revolt. It defines a type of strike that involves the whole life and not only its professional side, that acknowledges exploitation in all the domains and not only at work” (Claire Fontaine). Thus, one of the main ontological components of the human strike is that it is categorically against the reactionary elements which it necessarily precludes. It may also be argued that the human strike is against that which is reactionary in a form-of-life’s own libidinal cache, their own desires which prove to be inherently reactionary. Again, this characteristic reticence to retreat into some semblance of subjective security is challenged and questioned – as “communization theory’s” Empire has ostensibly become so totalizing and ingrained within individual subjectivity that even potentially libratory desire is suspect.

As such this type of strike is, “no longer limited to a specific target: what is at stake is a transformation of the subjectivity. This transformation – and that is the interesting point – is at the same time the cause and the consequence of the strike. The subjective, the social and the political changes are tightly entangled so that necessarily this type of uprising concerns subjects whose social identity is poorly codified…”(Claire Fontaine). Here it becomes evident that the human strike is first and foremost concerned with “transformation of subjectivity.” As stated earlier, this transformation is one which acknowledges that subjectivity itself is the main site of contestation between biopower and spectacle. It is a transformation which is aware of the ways in which, according to Althusserian logic, the ideology of the state quite literally dictates the parameters of subjective values and mores. Thus, what once (according to postmodernism) was the last bastion of refusal and defiance (the subjective) has now been entirely appropriated and functions according to the dictums of state coercion. The notion that the subjective, social, and political have become “tightly entangled” points to the way in which any attempt to neatly parse out any contamination of hegemony from whatever a genuine subjectivity would look like is naïve and futile. The only recourse, according to “communization theory,” is to revolt entirely against the entirety of life within Empire. Yet it must be noted that the process of the human strike is its own ends – as it denounces any claims to prescriptively ascribe meaning or purpose to it as an act of becoming. It is in this regard that the human strike is inherently a negative project, one which concedes that “within this condition of global civil war, to touch on our humanity again will be in a collective negation” (Institute for Experimental Freedom).

This “collective negation” exemplifies the way in which the human strike is ultimately a collectivization of whatever singularity. As Claire Fontaine articulates: “The human strike is a movement that could potentially contaminate anyone and that attacks the foundations of life in common; its subject isn’t the proletarian or the factory worker but the whatever singularity that everyone is” (Claire Fontaine) Thus, the human strike is charged with the necessity to unmask what is held in common – yet inessential. To a certain extent, postmodernism has allowed for the infinite bifurcation, evolution, and further specification of essentialist identities – and it is precisely against this, that “communization theory” appropriates Agamben’s whatever singularity as a means to fully locate a form-of-being unto itself, not subject to predisposed signification and representation. Seen in this context, that of “the formation of community without the affirmation of identity or ‘representable condition of belonging’”, the human strike is thus a collective realization of forms-of-being outside of essential characteristics. It is a revolt against life, as life has ostensibly become completely inscribed within the externalized dictates of Empire, the fabricated subjectivities of the Spectacle, and the subsequent self-policing of Biopower. It is the defiant negation of any claims to representation, against both extrinsic or self-imposed encapsulation within a fixity of being, that which is unconcerned with both difference and reference – it is not “We are not ‘X”’, but simply “We are not.”

Keepers of the Fire

The Strait: Book of Obenabi. His Songs
From the pen of Fredy Perlman
Black & Red, Detroit. 1988
399 pages, $6

The Strait by Fredy Perlman is a two-volume manuscript remembrance of the world changers. It is the songs and stories of colonization and resistance in what has come to be known as the Great Lakes region of North America as witnessed through the eyes of not only its humans, but animals, trees, and everything living. There are two volumes of the book, with volume one being the story of how things came to be, and volume two being the resistance. Sadly, only volume one of the book was completed (works in progress) when Fredy Perlman passed away in 1985.

Lorraine Perlman documents volumes one and two of the book in Having Little, Being Much: A Chronicle of Fredy Perlman’s Fifty Years, giving an eye-opening look into some of the unpublished material and providing an intimate view of Fredy’s ideas. It seems that the two volumes were not long from being completed and one wonders if they will ever see the light of day again. Prior readers of Perlman, can think of The Strait as being the narrative form of Against His-tory, Against Leviathan!, yet going deeper. Or, if you want to compare and contrast it to his other narrative Letters of Insurgents, you can think of it as the story of what came before all that. Actually, Fredy intended this, and his plan was to present himself as the translator of Robert Dupré’s manuscript. In 1851 Obenabi told (or sang to) Dupré (his nephew) these stories after they had both been jailed for opposing railroad construction across Michigan. Dupré’s great-grandson Robert Avis is Tissie’s cousin, who is friends with modern day “rememberer” Ted (the printer). Sabina is also the image of capital for volume two. And if that list of characters was to much for you, just wait till you try and read the actual book. Thankfully, also enclosed in the book is a fold out map that is around 24 inches long and 11 inches wide of all the characters in a “family tree” format.

Aside from finding it impossible to keep track of the hundreds of characters and happenings throughout the book, it is hard to find much else to complain about regarding it. Given, perhaps I’ve also said before that Perlman is one of my favorites, so of course there is some bias. Many parts of the book were extremely graphic and the reality faced by the original inhabitants from the Invaders leaves nothing out. It’s not all violence and rage though, as the book seems to make the point of leaving no stone unturned. While it may be considered fiction, the book is perhaps some of the closest fiction to ever being non-fiction, if that can make sense to you. Perhaps, if you are from the Great Lakes region or familiar with it’s history, it is not entirely difficult to recognize actual events, people, and places mentioned.

For me, this was the best part of the book. It tells the story of what happened, and there is not a lot to celebrate it seems, quite sad – but true. Perhaps it is the heartfelt wrenching that tears your soul out that you must be feeling. The world changed – the names and language, the places, environment, and the everything inhabiting it. It was like nothing before. If one pundit were to create a simile about the book, they may write: “The Strait is like a more in-depth, more critical and regionally focused A Peoples History of the United States, but just without so much of a people fetish.” Or maybe Glen Beck would call it the narrative form of The Coming Insurrection. After all, the bloom lives in the bloom, whatever that means.

But, what comes next? As mentioned before, in Having Little, Being Much Lorraine Perlman writes a magnificent review of the book, so good in fact, that another review almost becomes unnecessary, but since I’ve gotten this far there is no going back now. Her writing is insightful and full of some really interesting tidbits worth reading, even if you haven’t read the book yet. Here is the song:

In his notes Fredy wrote messages to himself about the crucial importance of the story being “oral.” His goal was to emerge with a song. He was surely aware that the hundreds of characters would not make the story easy to read, nor would the avoidance of the Invaders’ system of dates make the chronology obvious. But this story, emulating its oral predecessors, could not have recourse to the European establishment’s dating system. Births, deaths, plagues and battles correlate events described by Obenabi and Wabnokwe, the narrators of Fredy’s story. As setting, he chose the place in which he was living; the title of the work is the English translation of “Detroit.”

And, so it begins. I complained earlier about the seemingly never-ending list of characters in the book, so here is a quote from Lorraine that will give a little more justice to the cast. Pay extra close attention to one of the names towards the end.

The epic Fredy created needed all the individual characters. From his own experience Fredy knew that resistance to domination takes many forms. The choices made by a free people, individuals neither domesticated nor fettered by the dominators’ own ideology, fascinated him. He tried to put himself in their situation, hoping that their responses might help in his own efforts to resist. From fragments, he rounded out a personality and created a world of richly diverse women and men. Although some characters are taken as archetypes of their milieu, they never are mere representatives. Before choosing names, Fredy made for each “people” a list of names he had found while reading about their past. When a dictionary of words was available (as in History of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians of Michigan by A.J . Blackbird), he constructed original names. Many characters have European names in addition to the descriptive appellation given them by kin. Although never mentioned explicitly in the finished story, Obenabi also answers to Benjamin J. Burr-net, Wabnokwe to Rebekah Burr-net. Some historical characters who spend long periods among Rootkin have non-European names. Thus John Con-err is known to Obenabi exclusively as Bijiki. The Labadie family figures prominently in events on the Strait and in Mishilimakina; Baptiste, Antoine (Le Sauteur) and Paulette appear as Batì, Lesotér and Pamoko, respectively.

Coincidence? John Connor is also another character that was first mentioned in the 1984 now-classic Terminator movie. He is the leader of the future resistance against Skynet, and while the book’s character may be a little different – I thought it was a little funny.

As tempting as it is to just have blockquotes for the rest of the review, here are some brief thoughts. Perlman always a lover of languages and a speaker of four, conducted the characters in the book with many different languages that a keen observer may notice. The commentary is that of life experiences and everything that comes with living in a world that disappears right before your eyes. Never has anything vanished so quickly before and replaced with nothing but illusion. Asked if it is all a dream, the response remains unanswered.

I dissolve. There’s only water. Water with a dream in its depths, like moon’s reflection, a liquid yolk wrapped in a watery blanket, a seed in a womb, a dreams that’s roused whenever sun’s yellow hair caresses or moon’s cool tongue licks the water’s surface and makes it ripple. (p. 22)

Health is a world without Invaders; they love power and hate life. Stories of destruction and the spread of smallpox covered blankets with complete regions burned over and heads scalped is the slow spin into chaos that erupts from invasion. It becomes appallingly routine, almost so much that is seems everything is forgotten. Maybe this is the wrong sentiment, but the world changes so fast, that often it is hard not to forget. Or is it the things we only choose to forget? Lets talk about where we live and sometimes how we forget.

a great fear: they who for ages had celebrated and sung and recorded their event-filled trajectory feared that soon none would remember it, soon no living person would have ancestors who had followed that path, soon there would be no memory of Eastbranch Rootkin ever having existed. (p. 210)

It is about, gasp, finding out who you are, and your identity. Some of the most memorable scenes from the book are the dream lodges that the youths escape to. And thinking about who you are, not thinking at all, or simply using it as excuse to get out of responsibilities. Visions, illusions, animals, and some solitude deep in the woods dreaming. Trying to figure out who you are could have never been more relaxing. And then, contrast it with this description of the Invaders religion, which could plainly be described as “no fun at all”.

My fear made me listen carefully to everything the Robes told me: the earth where my ancestors lay was hell, the forest was the Devil’s lodging and animals were his creatures, festivals to regenerate the earth were orgies; enjoyment of earth’s fruit was evil, we originated in sin, our lives were a painful burden, our salvation was death, and after death we would be regenerated, but not all of us, only those whose who had believed the Word – that’s why we had to seek guidance only from the carries of the Word, the Blackrobes. (p. 42)

Peace and happiness have vanished. And, what if things had turned out a little differently? Is this too ridiculous to ask? Volume one leaves it at that and then some. The story feels incomplete, yet finished – maybe just like this review. The works were never intended to stand alone, perhaps that is why reading it is a little strange. And as winters blanket encompassed the night and the air became still, they listened to the sounds of the woods hollowing, and in the distance, the whistle of an oncoming train.

He told the Invaders that human beings weren’t made to languish in prisons of their own making. He told them no animals crippled and stunted its own kind, and no animals embarked on a war against any and all creatures that were unlike itself. He warned them that any who embarked on such a war would turn the very elements against them and would gag on the air, be poisoned by the water and be swallowed up by earth. (p. 303)

Fredy Perlman at the Anarchist Library

The Strait in Having Little, Being Much