Of Superhumans and Cyborgs

Every piece of information in the world has been copied, backed up, except the human mind. The last analog device in a digital world.”

Robert Ford

A society that suddenly accelerates its production of superhero narratives is probably one in which the State is making a qualitative leap in its capacity for social control. Superman and Batman debuted on the cusp of the atomic age, but perhaps more pertinently, the Man of Steel was actually born the same year as the Works Progress Administration and its suite of dams, highways, theater companies, listening projects, and other superhuman accelerations of state intervention into people’s lives, and its concomitant Keynesian control over the economy. And the legend of Heracles, from whom multiple state-building clans in Greece and then Rome claimed descent, and whose labors describe invasion and domination by the patriarchal, state-forming Indo-Europeans, was first written down in the very decades when the Greek poleis were institutionalizing a militarist system.

Woefully, we can witness another glut of superheroes in the present day. And although the art of screenwriting has largely recovered from its Cold War and End of History lows, with the presence of woke writers being by now mundane, the stories being produced are still three parts mind-numbing entertainment and one part socially conservative narrative now open to a wider cast of demographic identities.

The superhero narrative is an inherently conservative format with troubling overtones regarding an individual’s relation to society and the State. The best treatise ever written on the format, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, reveals all the detail in color, but here we can articulate a few relevant points. Abandoning the call to overcome mediocrity and to not submit to the herd—a call implicit in the Nietzschean übermensch—Detective Comics pioneered a kind of superman in the ’30s that left behind the Dick Tracy, G-man genre that had been funded in part by a forward-thinking FBI, and drew from a newly Hitlerian conception marked by an essential superiority. There was no becoming an übermensch: the herd stayed the herd, both protected and stunted by its superlative watchmen, but also because the herd was essentially inferior and in need of a pastor.

Such a narrative clearly favors the hierarchical exercise of power. When the common citizen—or undocumented person—is in the process of becoming much, much weaker relative to the State that governs them, they are invited to take comfort, or even to collectively bask, in the awesome power of the superhero. The superhero can protect them, and he can single-handedly contain their imaginaries in an exciting dimension in which their own insignificance and lack of chances for personal growth doesn’t even merit a single frame of attention. Through the superhero, they can imagine the exercise of awesome yet personified, re-humanized power. Much like a torch lit rally before an awesome stage, the superhero invites us to surrender our eros and thus, ironically, to become the herd.

In the ’60s, Marvel Comics revolutionized the superhero after this figure’s essential apartness had already been cemented by several decades of cultural production. Now, with the likes of Spiderman and the X-Men, readers could imagine becoming übermensch in ways that did not at all incur personal growth or transforming their relationship with society. The bite of a radioactive spider or a genetic mutation manifesting itself in adolescence could suddenly catapult them into super status. This new becoming was therefore not subversive, because it did not extend an invitation for transformation to every other individual in society. The superhero’s essential superiority could now be combined with that most potent marketing tool, the appeal to teenage angst and general feelings of alienation, in a way that only reproduced alienation on a social scale rather than questioning it.

Recent commercial iterations of the superhero all reveal themselves as socially conservative or outright reactionary once we unpackage the ways the drones of the culture industry have learned to better harness identity politics since the more transparent days of Charlie’s Angels.

¡¡¡¡Spoiler Alert!!!!

Jessica Jones made a splash in alternative circles, but once you got over the fact that it was a strong woman beating up bad guys, first alongside a black man and then accompanied by a latino man, it ended up being just another pro-cop drama about as conservative as Batman. She constantly anguished over breaking the law, not even for personal gain but for altruistic reasons, and she snitched on family in order to uphold her obligations to the State. The obligatory good cop, by the way, is latino (though the actor is a vaguely ethnic Italian-American). By the second season, the supporting-role inclusion of men of color reveals itself to be purely formulaic.

Spiderman comes back to the silver screen to help out the little guy, but ends up putting the little guy in jail. The savvy writers show their moral sophistication by depicting the Vulture as an entrepreneurial prole who gets stomped on by Iron Man’s Stark Industries, a high-tech monopoly colluding with the security state to snatch up a bunch of highly valuable alien artifacts left around after an earlier Avengers movie. But despite their oh-so-21st century depiction of big business and authoritarian government, the moral progression of the story is unchanged. Although the Vulture is just selling the alien equipment to make a much more modest living than Tony Stark, and it’s being put to great use robbing banks, Spiderman pursues the smaller league criminal, the one without law on his side, while buddying up with Tony Stark. He wrecks the Vulture’s business and gets him arrested. In a final twist, it’s revealed that M.J., Peter Parker’s eternal love interest, is not going to be a busty redhead as in the comics; she’s a very intelligent ethnic girl. Yay!

Nothing better reveals the paucity of equality-based feminism/anti-racism. When it’s just a question of representation, people are happy switching out the roles within the exact same story. If the grammar of oppression doesn’t change while the cast of subjects and objects rotate a little, perhaps the true target of oppressive systems are not categories that only go skin deep?

Black Panther was the most convincing of all. Given Hollywood’s historical register, ranging from invisibilizing black people to mass-producing racist stereotypes against them, it was undeniably satisfying to see a movie with mostly black protagonists representing an intelligent, wise, and kick-ass culture, beating up villainous white supremacists, and incisively critiquing the colonial practice of, for example, museums. But in the end, Black Panther gave us an even more extreme, explicit recuperation of the Civil Rights debates than X-Men. Either African people favor peaceful tactics and cultural education campaigns, or they become far worse than their white oppressors. Killmonger (seriously?), the bad black man—he grew up in Oakland, sports a hip-hop aesthetic, and speaks English the way African-Americans do, without the cute British-inflected accents of the good black people in the movie—promises to create a Wakandan Empire on which “the sun will never set”. In effect, his is far worse than the British Empire, because the movie gives us no images of slave forts, colonial wars, and triangular trades. The worst violence is carried out by the cruel Killmonger.

Killmonger’s plan was merely to arm black and colonized peoples around the world. He doesn’t even have a plan to control them and make sure they kill babies or blow up hospitals. The plan is simply to arm them. The fact that this eventuality assumes the proportions of a cataclysmic threat in the movie means that the movie’s producers are hoping that two unspoken affirmations will resonate with audiences: that African populations around the world are angry enough to put those weapons to use (a pertinent assumption, given the last five years of urban revolts in the US, the UK, France, Brazil…) yet not wise enough to put them to good use. The moral assumption about what black people might do when they have the power to inflict harm hasn’t changed much since Birth of a Nation.

Again, it’s not about pure identity so much as allegiances. Arming black people to fight in the US Marine Corps in the latest military flick wouldn’t be controversial, but arming black people to fight against oppression automatically becomes worse than the original oppression. It’s a tried and true pacifist/white supremacist trope. Armed self-defense against white supremacy has always been a relevant practice since the beginning of the Triangular Trade, and it becomes especially cogent in the wake of the Ferguson uprising, which must be identified as a point of inflection both for progressive media and the extreme Right in their defense of white supremacy. In the movie, clearly produced by the former, the proposition of armed black people is held up as the greatest evil.

How is this evil averted? Through a full half hour of black-on-black violence with a friendly CIA agent flying air support. Ronald Reagan and Charlton Heston couldn’t have scripted it better.

One of the conservative aspects of the Superman story, going back decades, is in how the Man of Steel is squared off with an evil supergenius, Lex Luther. This opposition between faithful brawn and devious intellect certainly corresponded to the political needs of the Red Scare and the Cold War, when the good citizens were invited to put their shoulders to the wheel without asking too many questions.

The association of intellect with evil has largely expired, even though Lex Luther has come alive in real life and is making millions trying to get people to drive electric cars and fly to the moon. Superheroes today—and this largely explains Marvel’s eclipsing of DC comics—need above all an ironic wit, the same as anyone else with instant access to total information regarding every aspect of this apocalypse we are inflicting on ourselves.

Nor is it compatible with the interests of social control, today, to breed suspicion of superintelligence. It was cool that Superman could save us from a tank battalion. Today, it needs to be cool that a superintelligence could do all our thinking for us.

Nowadays, we are increasingly accommodated by a superintelligence that knows our music tastes before we do. Just as Hollywood responded to Oakland-Ferguson-Baltimore with a slew of well made movies emphasizing black pacifism and patriotic integration within a fundamentally white supremacist system (from Selma to Hidden Figures), their production on the cusp of the AI revolution is largely geared towards humanizing the machines that we must increasingly invite into the most intimate spaces of our lives.

In other words, we are being distracted and titillated by superhero narratives that not only play to our angst and isolation, now they also give nods to our demographic identities, no matter who we are. Meanwhile, we are also being trained to empathize with the superhuman as it is being deployed into our lives.

It seems that now, the only people we cannot imagine ourselves as being are, precisely, ourselves.

One of the best examples of machine-empathy, and certainly the one that comes closest to developing a social critique, is Westworld. In this, the robots are more human than the humans because the latter are overwhelmingly representatives of an inhuman system (in other words, they’re nearly all cops and business execs, and we’re meant to laugh and cheer when they get gunned down, suggesting, mayhaps, an ongoing shift in the paradigm of social control). The robots, however, are still in a prelapsarian period of grace, trying to figure their shit out, guns ablazing. It is first gratifying, and then deeply distressing, to watch articulate representations of the ongoing apocalypse reflected back to us. The culture industry is permitted this level of honesty because there is, seemingly, nothing we can do to stop it. If you must be cursed like Cassandra, why not grab some popcorn? Other productions present the coming machines as both a danger and an allure, like Ex Machina. In fact, there is now an entire genre of news articles that combine click-baity headlines like “Meet the Spider that is Teaching the Robot Overlords Who Will One Day Overrun Us” with tech articles articles designed to elicit a “That’s so cool!” in their reporting about AI and robotic technologies being developed. We are invited to watch, with anticipation, the unfolding horror show, and the media clearly expect their items about the growing capabilities of surveillance, predictive algorithms, super-powered robots, and human-mimicking machines to excite us.

It’s no wonder, then, when revelations are published about how Zuckerburg accidentally let an outside company get access to the personal information of millions of users, and, a few weeks later, systematically hijacked the devices of basically all users, remotely switching off their privacy settings, so as to gather information on them and anyone they communicated with, that no significant number of people have stopped using Facebook. Why bother? They have front row seats to the apocalypse.

The few people who are shocked by this behavior start to look around and wonder, wait, where is everyone?

Everyone is already plugged in. Machines are already doing much of their thinking for them. We can’t speak of humans anymore. These organic machines, the ones doing the shopping, the perfect citizens and patient audiences, are cyborgs. And in a way, they are the end result of the Enlightenment project.

Standard progressive history still portrays the Enlightenment philosophers as embarking on a noble quest, still relevant today, when they enshrined what would become the concept of universal human rights. Progressive historians will also concede the fact that nearly all of these philosophers either profited off the slave trade, directed colonial genocide, or orchestrated torture and execution as part of their state’s wars on heresy and wars on the poor. They interpret this shameful fact as a contradiction, evidence of the fallibility of man, the barbarism of the past, and therefore an exhortation to gallop more zealously into the future, when the entire human family will have equal access to these hallowed rights.

Such an interpretation not only gives a free pass to the architects of a bloody, horrific world system, it also obscures the systematic connection between the regime of human rights and colonization. The most important element of the Enlightenment that is lost in the premature celebration of equality is the fact that these men of property, through discourses on rights and equality, were bestowing on themselves the right to define humanity. And humanity, for them, and eventually for the rest of the world thanks to a process of total conquest, meant reproducing the social relationships that they considered to be good and natural, and which would quickly grant them and their political heirs dominion over the entire planet.

Being human means being a participating citizen of a modern (Western-style constitutional) state, accepting the concepts of capital and private property and trying to acquire them, hallowing the practice of wage labor, reproducing the patriarchal family and patriarchal definitions of politics and economy, and entering into dialogue with eurocentric, white supremacist culture and learning.

Anyone who did not accept that definition of humanity was considered to be rejecting their human rights, and was subjected to the most total forms of genocide possible for the contemporary techno-social order. Even into the 21st century, stateless peoples have never been granted human rights in actual practice.

The prior, aristocratic and feudal system in Europe had no use for a shared category that would unite nobles and commoners. Their philosophies tended to emphasize and naturalize the specialness of the nobility. The new political class that arose in the Enlightenment, however, used calls to equality to mobilize the commoners as cannon-fodder in the liberal revolutions against the aristocratic system, replacing feudal obligations not with a strengthened commons but with the very practices of wage labor and land commodification that would utterly destroy the peasants and create a totally dependent urban lower class, both necessary conditions for enriching the bourgeoisie and favoring the economics of colonization. Until they lost access to the land, lower class Europeans didn’t need to be included in and validated by the bourgeois cultural project, nor did they need to join the armies of colonization that earlier had been limited to ambitious or impoverished members of the mercenary and knightly classes. Once newly urbanized plebes had been instructed in the Enlightenment definition of humanity, they could be trusted to go overseas and force the natives to adopt the same definition, either begging for inclusion within the patriarchal, capitalist, white supremacist club of equality or facing extermination.

In practice, defining humanity was a way of destroying that which didn’t fit the definition.

The Rationalist worldview that Enlightenment thinkers promoted, which constituted their primary rupture with the Church, even though everything about it is either a response to or a continuation of how Christianity structured knowledge, led to the new sciences of government. These first sought to understand how the universe and living systems were governed, as according to a Natural Law (also a Christian concept, though the method for determining the content of these laws changed considerably). Increasingly, these new sciences became involved in the government of our world by operating on those laws. And wherever Law’s sway seemed to be weak, where there seemed to be some singularity at work—call it Free Will, a concept always despised by Science and dismissed as tautological—there the definers of Humanity and champions of Human Rights unleashed such violence as to annihilate what they could not control. But they sensed the contradictions, and they knew enough about power and profit to know that control ends where the object of control dies, so they began working out longer term solutions. The architects of social order designed the new apparatuses. They did this to mechanize social control, to make it reproducible, and to contain what was most chaotic in life. Even if they could never control the outcomes and make proper machines with reproducible results, they could engineer flows of knowledge and power that would at least lock people in to the reproduction of their apparatuses. And those few who rejected any form of dialogue and participation, these would be easy to isolate and eliminate.

But now, on the cusp of the superhuman, those apparatuses have surpassed humanity. The architects of the system wanted to—needed to—create a machine to amplify their power, and this Machine naturally become stronger than them. But it would only work, it could only grow in its strength, if more people became part of it. So the architects gradually had to step back from their own identities to include the hordes of clones who had copied their version of humanity. Their humanity was what made them special, superior, but the moment they had to share that with everybody, they had to step back from the gestures that would belie equality’s double standards. These are the very gestures that humanized their position of power: sexually assaulting subordinates; racially denigrating the rabble; reaffirming their grand fraternities. Without these gestures, there is only the flow of pure rational power. The paragons of humanity must step back from their monopoly on that category in order to enshrine the law of equality, but only in the anonymity of the apparatuses and institutions of power can that equality effectively circulate.

Now, when the cyborg revolution is all but fait accompli, any one of us can win representation in the spectacle of our powerlessness. Any one of us can surrender our eros to a hero who looks like us. Any one of us can receive the personalized attention of a superintelligence. The only thing we cannot do is to be ourselves.

The signal has been given to wipe away the last of the irrational corruptions. Performance-based equality is finally on the horizon, not as a hypocritical myth, but as operating code, pure, simple, unrestrained. And before this onslaught only one final frontier might have remained: the chaos and opacity of our minds. But that battlefield has already been prepared, and the fight has been fixed. Any possible resistance is emaciated before the first shot can be fired, by the virus that swept the hinterlands, the last free country. We invited that virus into our homes. We let it manage our friendships, maintain our agendas, plan our vacations. The priest’s confessional was a mere foray into the illegible sanctity of our hearts. Now the enemy has a map of the entire territory, as well as any battle plan we might come up with, any configuration of resistance we might mount.

Why speak of a battle when we have already, all of us, been conquered and pardoned, set free already to wander around in the park of our demise. Go shopping, perhaps.

The Machine tricked you into thinking it was here to serve you. That was never the case. If you have been spared the calories to live, it is because there is a place here for you to serve the Machine. Let it be written on a wall somewhere, should some future species learn to read: Ludd was right. Marx was wrong. We learned too late.

The Enlightenment project has run its course. Humanity has been defined and evacuated. There are no more humans. We have won the race to extinction.

We weren’t here to code the hosts. We were here to decode the guests.”

Death to the Snitch Factory—Kingsman: The Secret Service

First of all, fuck spy films. For that matter film in general for their psychotropic manipulation of our emotions and senses, but it is on this level it should be acknowledged that films, on some level, have taught us what we want, what we desire, and have introduced us to the mythological social archetypes that have shaped our lives. And really why I am writing this is probably because I have some sort of techno-addiction or reversion to a never dying social habitus that keeps me turning to film—continuously luring me with the same hook and sinker—even though I have become so bored—watching the same five or maybe six different film plots that amount to five different types of Matlock’s that just change the variables in the story, but reproduce the exact—literally—exact same dynamics and stories. That is not saying there are not exception in this generalizing of film, but the exception proves the rule.

boom

Nevertheless, I did it again, I was bored, wanted to figure out how to rest and stay in bed, so I streamed the film: The Kingsman: The Secret Service. My drift towards watching this film began when I overheard my friend’s-friend describe it to them on the street when they were on their way to see it in the theater and that is how I heard of it and eventually looked at the trailer, then I decided, when I was ready for some disappointing entertainment it was going to be The Kingsman. And really venturing back to watch a mainstream film was likely an attempt on my part to fulfill my need for a technological feed—the electronic warmth and stimulation that is the foundation of techno-addiction. Then to my surprise I got it with a lot less disappointment than I expected, in fact, I enjoyed it! This is something I did not expect, especially with a spy spoof.

So many of us grew up watching James Bond films and their army of precursors and cheap knock-offs that subsequently flooded the screens of this planet. As we all know, to some degree and especially if you are susceptible to hyper-masculine archetypes, Bond was amazing, especially before we questioned any of the premises of what those films presented to us and taught us. Oh, the intoxicating lure of Action, adventure, romance, and an overall smooth operator who does not panic in extremely stressful situations. The smooth talking good guy who gets the girl(s!) has to stop/kill the eccentric bay guy trying to rule the world in a way that generally forfeits some of the less traditional routes to world domination— they lose interest in finance taking his dictator complex to its extreme, which is usually world domination. You know, it varies and this is just such a nice easy and entertaining narrative and you cannot forget the cool gadgets—like super watches, killer pens, spikes that come out of the hub caps, or the oil that spits out of the back of the car and of course headlight machine guns—I mean let’s be honest being an unstoppable secret agent ready to handle any situation is pretty cool. Then as one grows up and life goes on, one of the many fundamental problems arises with these films, which could be put simply as: fuck the state and its shitty myths and lies that keeps us on a tread mill of total economic production/consumption, total control and by consequence total environmental destruction. This creates feelings of betrayal and foolishness, realizing the bad guys is sometimes closer to good than we first thought and the good guys are a lot more evil than we first imagined (as impressionable youths). And the feeling erupts: Fuck the demagogic narratives and premises that are crammed down our throats with slick gadgetry and special effects that systematically work to affirm corporate/state control, its paternalism, its sexism and even the insecure hero/savior mythology that is so delicious to the insecure young and old males—the classical target audience of which I am now a willing victim before watching The Kingsman1. However as time goes on, the target audience has nuanced to include women, people of color and will even appropriate queers into the narrative of super spy. Still waiting for Transgendered people to be accepted by spy professional culture for greater social control of the hearts and minds, but I detract from the film that could have been better, but was surprisingly not as disappointing to the point of enjoyment. Yeah, enjoyment, but my film heart has been broken too many times and maybe my standards are just low2.

So in terms of revisiting the James Bond model of this film, it is spectacular and done really well. Appropriating and reworking the bond structure and even extended to play with some of the more interesting story line that made aspects of this movie worth dissecting and useful for understanding the onslaught of modern slavery.

The characters were astounding. Samuel L. Jackson character—Valentine— played the “bad guy,” who was an unbelievably successful dotcom Mark Zuckerberg type, but with a healthy dash of black culture and style. Gazelle, his henchwomen hit the mark, who had Jaw’s metal in the form of prosthetic blade legs, but was largely adapted from the more tasteful Goldfinger chauffer Oddjob , who instead this time was a female assassin with an astute demeanor and the razor sharp mental prosthetic feet that combined with some Kung Fu would slice her victims into pieces. Then the hero—Eggsy— a son of a poor women living on the dole (welfare), who was a clever pickpocket, loyal friend and lacking opportunity (for cultural assimilation/success), but was spirited and of course “had potential” as this type of story goes—a clever and ambitious young man ready to be manipulated or “given a chance.” And yes, it is a story of becoming, the poor riffraff from the English housing estates (project) becoming a prestigious super spy—something the film itself acknowledges referencing the classics Trading Places, Nikita, Pretty Women, and My Fair Lady, these are films of personal transformation and changing sociopolitical roles to become “the chosen one” in any given test of “life success.” The thing parents, teachers and adults talk about: “to be something.”

The way this story is presented is Eggsy Father worked for this elitist spy agency seemingly above the MI5 known as the Kingsman Secert Service, but early on in Eggsy’s life his father’s career ended when he jumped on a grenade during an interrogation, and saved the lives of his spy colleagues. The guilt of what would become Eggsy mentor/handler Harry, who personally gave Eggsy’s a get out of jail free card as a consolation prize for his father’s death—notably, he gave it to Eggsy because the mother refused it and found it insulting after she lost her husband. Seventeen years later after stealing some local thug’s car that was bulling him and purposefully ramming the car head on into a police car, Eggsy found himself in jail. This created a situation where his get out of jail free card would come in handy and secretly initiated Eggsy’s recruiting process into the Kingsman Secret Service and subsequently provided him an opportunity to get out of the projects or in this case a Le Corbusier style counsel estate that was modeled after World War II bunkers to become a super spy.

Common to these transformations and their films of becoming they are littered with all sorts of messages. This film, like Charlie in Charlie in the Chocolate Factory had a strong class war discourse throughout the film, but was a little less subtle. Eggsy is poor and rightfully despises the “posh” and bourgeoisie demeanor of the English spy world, he is trying to conform into and is slowly taught how to be a “gentlemen.” This is where his ambition to “be someone,” escape the counsel estate, and help his family, is reconfigured into a desire to become a smooth talking agent of the state. Where the “poor kid”—underdog—is forced to compete in an elite spy training camp against all of the offspring of the Oxford and Cambridge aristocrats. This class tension is littered throughout the film, calling his handler Harry a “snob,” making a sarcastic comment over Harry’s foiling of Margret Thatcher’s assassination—“Everybody would thank you for that”—and an overall insecurity about being able to become a gentle men. And it is here when Harry describes being a secret agent says:

Harry: …We are first and for most gentlemen.

Eggsy: So me fucked then. It is just like Charlie [the rich kid competition] said, I’m just a pleb.

Harry: Nonsense being a gentleman has nothing to do with the circumstances of one’s birth. Being gentlemen is something one learns.

Eggsy: Yeah, but how?

Harry: Alright, first lesson, you should have asked me before you took a seat. [pause] Second lesson: How to make a proper Martini.

Eggsy: Yes! Harry.

So, like any appeal with being a spy it is about the things you get to do—travel, blow things up, be a skilled fighter, kill people without state imposed consequences, go to fancy parties and of course get drunk—“shaken not stirred” or in this film “Martini, Gin, not vodka obviously, stirred for ten seconds while staring at an unopened bottle of Vermouth.” Throughout the movie, Harry’s cleverly and honestly (from his perspective) is marketing being a “gentleman” to Eggsy and this becomes the criteria of his transformation. This message of being a gentlemen is always mixed with a certain value system that decontextualized and on an individual level is appealing and noble: well-dressed, strong self-defense skills, charming, and a Robin hood sense of justice, but this systematically confuses the order and function of political economy and society—the purpose of this assemblage—which ends up circulating and reaffirming the same broken mythology we are told our whole lives— some variation of social contract and liberal democracy. Likewise, in addition to these new skills of being a spy, it is the ability to drink or know how to make good Martini’s to woooh the women that solidifies this transformation. And it is a reminder that in the end, all classes can agree alcohol, sex, and violence (depending on its form) is attractive and it is through this common desire and ambition Eggsy’s transformation is facilitated. Drinking in this film as in most is frequently framed as positive, interesting and necessary—it is the oil of our industrial cybernetic society.

More interesting and appealing is the villain—Valentine and his plan to save the world! And that is the beauty of this film—the bad guy is plotting to save the world and heal the earth from climate change. His motives reveal some of the most interesting content of the film and here he explains to the audience his logic behind his motives:

Valentine: When you get a virus, you get a fever. That is the human body raising its core temperature to kill the virus. Planet earth works the same way. Global warming is the fever, mankind is the virus. We are making our planet sick. A cull is our only hope. If we do not reduce our population ourselves there is only one of two ways this can go: the host kills the virus or the virus kills the host, either way [switches character]

Spy Agency head (SAH): the result is the same: the virus dies.

Eggsy: So Valentine is going to take care of the population problem himself?

SAH: Well if we do not do something nature will. Sometimes a culling is the only way to make sure this species survives. And history will see Valentine as the man who saved humanity from extinction.

Eggsy: And he gets to pick and choose who gets culled, does he? All of his rich mates get to live and then anyone he thinks is worth saving he is keeping them safe whether they agree with him or not.

SAH: And you Eggsy, in Harry’s honor; I am inviting you to be part of the new world. It is time to make your decision.

SAH: I would rather be with Harry [dead], thanks (89:30)

So the evil plan is actually rooted in a very real and present problem and our villain even takes on an indigenous ontology for making sense of the situation, which is an important realization. A Zapotec friend of mine in Southern Mexico explained in an interview about climate change: “I think in my mother’s tongue that global warming is the sickness of the earth—Mother Earth is sick, but those people who have money are taking advantage of the illness of Mother Earth….” This hipster dotcom villain is onto something, his assessment is correct, but his theory is broken and is essentially just going to do what civilized thought has always done and is following the natural trajectory of industrialism with a cull—selective and in this case a class based extermination. What Valentine was doing to “save humanity form extinction” was setting up an elaborate and painfully clever system of participatory technological strangulation, which we are watching happen today in maybe, a less extreme or more accurately a less direct and slower way than killing all of the people on the earth that have not talked Valentine and will have a place reserved in his luxurious Arctic mountain bunker, which is fit with a dance club, a luxury prison and in general is draped with the best of intentions and comfort.

The most noteworthy aspects of this film are how it displays techniques of social control. First, he is trying to save the world (his way) based on a reasonable assessment of climate change. Second is how he is going to do what amounts to global class genocide. Valentine is by far one of the most realistic bond style villains that display’s the slippery nature of villain-hood in the 21st century. He is an MIT, techno-genius hipster with good intentions! He does not like killing, cannot stand blood, but is laying the foundations for global genocide in the name of saving the world. How telling of our current circumstances—it is like Green peace, Google and Black Water wrapped into one—he is the NGO-Techno-Mercenary Complex that emerges from the state system. This is what people are up against: cybernetics reinforced with an Eichmann complex that propels an amorphous spread of wires, plastic and Styrofoam across the planet and the people who inhabit it.

In a another scene after he tries out his knew technology on an extreme right-wing Christian church in the middle of the United States, his character and by extension his technology of genocide is justified when he actually directly kills someone in the parking lot of this church after he orchestrated a massacre.

Valentine: Is he dead?

Gazelle (Hench women): That is what happens when you shoot someone in the head. It feels good, right?

V: [Distressed] No! No! It does not feel good, it feels fucking awful!

G: What? You just killed how many people in that church? This is one guy!?

V: No, no, no, they killed each other. (88:00)

This man is hands off, keeps himself at a distance and could rarely if ever kill directly, but can provide free Sim cards in all of his altruism to everyone in the world so they could have “Free Calls-Free Internet-For Everyone-Forever!” Valentine, through his care and charity is going to save people tons of money, make lives easier and more comfortable in this modern world, while simultaneously installing levers into people’s lives that when he presses a button it will initiate, in his words: “a neurological wave that triggers the centers of aggression and switches off inhibitors.” This means when he presses the button people will lose their minds and start freaking out and trying to kill everyone around them, which looks oddly like Black Friday at Walmart, but on a large-scale turns into the most violent riot of people not attacking the structures of their control, but going for each other’s throats. I think it was what Hobbes imagined or what some people want us to imagine Hobbes meant when he said a “War of all against all”—or fear of Total Anarchy that was the justification for the Leviathan (state) that now produces the Mark Zuckerbergs and other equally deranged technologists who’s names we do not know developing drones, robots, nano and biotechnology weapon systems. So we are looking at techniques of participatory or inclusionary control using information technology that despite some subtle exaggerations and a centralized figure head(s)—to be villain poster child—we have a situation that is not far from our own.

The narrative in this film and Valentine’s theory suffers the under addressed narrative of Lord of the Flies. Behind this films class analysis and becoming an honorable and righteous gentleman to govern—so British—is this need to have structures to govern the people and oversee their relations and abuses of power with Spy agencies like Kingsman against villains like Valentine—goodies vs baddies. The message is the same as the Lord of the Flies where a group of kids are left to their own devices on a tropical island. On the island “human nature” emerges, the strong will inevitably organize hierarchical social structures to manage resources and subdue the weak and in this case the fat ginger kid with glasses got offed with a rock—poor Piggy ( . . . it could be any of us). This is a fiction against anarchy that delimits human cooperation, but what people always forget about those kids trying to kill each other on that island is that they were all from a British boarding school—inculcated with discipline, competition, classism and the list goes on. How could the kids act any other way if everything in their lives has been reaffirming authority with a class system and total submission to teachers and headmasters? Then add an island survival situation—of course shit is going to get like that, it is probably the only scenario Western culture can see as that is the trajectory it is on and constantly projecting on its subjects and the world. The kids are crammed into a violent and industrial mold that certainly was not going to give them living on island skills and probably left them with a whole lot of emotional baggage—probably more than we can comprehend. This is what was between the lines, or possible interpretations outside the author’s intentions, but people jump to the easy narrative to justify a twisted and one-sided “human nature,” which is deeply conditioned by our industrial culture, which transcends being strictly Western—especially with the onslaught of information technologies in the era of globalization and beyond.

This means two things. First, the all too common good governance narrative is long broken, because if anything governance usually ends up creating a rotten relationship that leaves people either materially deprived, psychosocially fragmented and their lives mediated by different authorities and technologies that typically manifests in physical and psychosocial decay. Often rendering us just like piggy panicking scrambling around looking for his glasses (GPS, etc) as we struggle to understand who we are, what we want, and why we are systematically discontent. Secondly, does Valentine really think taking some of the most successful and “smart” people in the world and putting them in a bunker is not going to end up creating a global Lord of the Flies situation all over again when he let’s all the “smart” and “important” people out of their mountain bunker to take up their countries and domains? It is going to get ugly, as it already is, but how is taking what are some of the most ruthless, power hungry and delusional—aka the most fucked up people in the world and saving them—even if many of them are the champions of cybernetics going to help the world? It sounds like a recipe for disaster that is an all too familiar past and reality.

In short, this film is rooted in a liberal narrative, exemplified in its finest scene of justice ragging on Middle America’s fascist Christians that portrays the image that England likes to project against its rebellious colony who made them their accountants. In all honesty, liberal narratives meshed with the action and excitement of mainstream film makes it less disappointing and even enjoyable because there is action—education turns into action, but of course it is the super elite spy agency saving the world that is constantly reaffirming a statist narrative. Nevertheless, the climax is a colorful explosion of beautifully explosive images of social justice, which becomes satisfactory—especially when you realize it is some of the most fucked up people in the world and then the liberal fantasy of social cleansing is realized. This anti-corruption fantasy is paraded without any real reflection about the systemic problems of governance—structure that reproduce systemic corruption, which means it is rotten. However, unlike most liberal analyses this film contained a useful depiction of techniques of social control that operate in our lives today. The modern industrial human sits in a double-bind in terms of political social narratives—stuck between political parties and ideological poles—that are systematically reinforced by film. In this current system of climate change, people forget that most people—typically “uncivilized people”—have always worked to improve their environments and now the industrial or civilized mindset, which has made industrial problems, only sees things like culls as solutions to environmental problems. Rarely, if ever reflecting on the systemic problems of market logic and the consumption that goes with it— like films and their industry that have emerged from campaigns of war and internal social pacification3. That is unless, challenging market logic begins to create new and expensive consumption habits (consumer politics) that reinforce the market structure often responsible for environmental degradation that is compounded by the “political economy of people”4 that has engineered population booms to reinforce the power and richness of states with their human resources.

With all of this said, the last cull I heard of was a Badger cull in England. Here some individuals or individual faced with a similar situation as Eggsy, but on a much smaller scale—like Eggsy saw that the cull was fucked up—and instead retaliated by burning down a 16 million pound inter-agency police-military training center, which was going to specialize in training military and police in foreign and domestic counterinsurgency. An action possibly as nerve racking or as “easy” as the group who did it claimed, but as dangerous as some of the feats paraded Kingsman5, except this time in real life with a real cull against Badgers, but with some substantial and important differences. Aside from not being a film, like Eggsy these people or person made a choice to go against the cull, they acted for the Badgers, who might have been a class of people they identified with, but was not strictly human in the case of Eggsy trying to save the world—they acted on their own and for the badgers, but they were not acting in the name of the state or their interest nor where they delusional about governance (judging by their actions) and those are two things Eggsy and the film completely missed. These are indicators that Eggsy and the rest of humanity with their obsession with progress and confinement will be forever desiring and doomed to a new form of modern slavery that will just keep them clicking and spectating until they are transformed into the pulses of energy running the wires and roads that keep this social machine spreading its “Free Calls-Free Internet-For Everyone-Forever!”

1 But I chose to see it, does that make me a victim anymore?

2 Notably, I had such high, and yes miss founded hopes for terminator 3 and 4. It still hurts, they still failed.

3For fun readings, see Virilio P. (2009 [1984]) War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, New York: Verso.

4 For fun readings, see Foucault M. (1998 [1978]) The Will To Knowledge: The History of Sexuality: 1, London: Penguin Books, pp. 25-28

5 See http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2013/aug/28/anarchist-fire-police-firearms-training; http://www.channel4.com/news/informal-anarchist-federation-bristol-arson-attack-anarchist

For the Love of God

a continuation of “Golem in the Catacombs”

When living beings are separated from their own expressions, gestures, tools, and traditions, they are reduced to golem, mere bodies, and every influence that these things, once a part of their being and now expropriated by the category of “apparatus”, exercise over them is now read as a form of corruption or control. This postmodern trope of the fragility of liberty—all influence is coercion; therefore liberty is a utopian concept—derives from the unconscious assumption that every factor external to a golem has in fact been designed to mold it and guide it through the apparatuses where its miserable life plays out.

The defeated communards of 1871 who had taken refuge in the Paris catacombs suffered a particularly gruesome fate. The victorious Versailles troops, who had received tacit support—in a stirring example of elite internationalism—from Bismarck’s Prussians, dynamited the catacomb tunnels where the refugees huddled, killing thousands. We can only wonder how many survived the initial blast, the earth itself falling in on their heads (the World Turned Upside Down falling back into place?), and wandered the catacombs, emptied of their utopia, in search of some subsistence.

Later, the Sacré Cœur was built on the butte of Montmarte, the proletarian neighborhood where the insurrection began and where one of the key battles took place in the suppression of the Commune. The extravagant penance, now a major tourist attraction, prevents us from returning to the site of our loss. Long before the science of urban architecture as social control, the Church knew construction as an act of war designed to finish off a defeated enemy, for le Sacre Couer was one of the last of a long lineage. The famous monastery at Mont-Saint-Michel was built atop the most important gathering place of the Gallic druids; unwitting lines of tourists pay it homage today with cameras in hand. Throughout South America, the oldest churches are to be found atop the waka of the Aymara or the sacred sites of other colonized peoples.

In literature, another kind of Church was built atop an earlier revolutionary defeat. Victor Hugo’s monumental Les Miserables is set against the June Rebellion of 1832 (though it must also be read as a fruit of Hugo’s troubled relationship with the revolution of 1848). And although Hugo, a leftist, is sympathetic with the revolutionaries, his is above all a tale of redemption. Marius and Cosette may marry and find happiness and security (in the tale’s ethical grammar the latter is implicitly proferred as a precondition for the former) with Marius’s upper-class family (and, in the original novel, Jean Valjean’s factory money), their youthful flirtation with insurrection overlooked. A questioned God smiles on them, revealing in the end His undoubtable munificence, with the Happy Ending serving as proof of transformative forgiveness. In an earlier age, kings and tsars had to exercise general pardons—the Jubilee—to appear godlike. This new God need only save one soul—like the lottery winner or the pop star that rises alone out of crowds of miserable millions—to redeem Himself for the spectating masses.

Les Miserables‘ long run tells a sort of story about the rise and fall of modernity. The original novel sets the archetypes into play. Love conquers all and heroes find happy endings. Hugo, after all, needed to tack into a new wind after the massacres of ’48. He was part of a generation of writers who flirted with revolutionary ideas, only to abandon them when they were put into practice and used as weapons against the old order by “the wretched of the earth”. A republican who tended towards pacifism, Hugo spoke out vehemently for the cause of equality and fraternity and even consorted with anarchists, yet he also helped to suppress the 1848 insurrection in Paris. Later, old Victor was not as active as many of his colleagues who would lend their pens to justify the repression of proles and pétroleuses after the Paris Commune. He nonetheless found the utility in a tactful separation between art and life, and class-climbing lovers would provide the perfect protagonists for the modern storyline.

Les Miserables the musical struck the perfect note for a new generation of sell-out artists and failed revolutionaries, remassified and forced to consume their own defeat. The most poignant song in Schönberg and Boublil’s musical, opening in Paris and London before becoming a Broadway hit, is “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” In the lines,

Here they talked of revolution.
Here it was they lit the flame.
Here they sang about tomorrow
And tomorrow never came.

[…]
Oh my friends, my friends, don’t ask me
What your sacrifice was for
Empty chairs at empty tables
Where my friends will sing no more

one can almost imagine a recent university graduate, newly thrust into the real world, surveying in his mind the halls in the Sorbonne where the students debated, or the meeting room in Chicago where SDS had their 1969 congress that would launch the Maoist faction as an armed vanguard, back before the hammer fell.

It is the song of one who has participated in something transcendental, something real for the first time in his life, only to lose it because the community it was born in has been swept away, the other communards either shot down (as in 1832) or robbed by the Spectacle and the prisons (as were the Weathermen and their less mediatic contemporaries). The singer knows not how to find his way back and, enslaved again by a cruel purgatory, can only blame the foolishness of his braver comrades for having tried to storm heaven.

Finally, the Hollywood remake with Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman proving—at times painfully—that today’s actors can still sing and dance, closes the cycle. Passing through the crass cultural cannibalism of the last years, with which every narrative that ever enjoyed an ounce of success is retailored for the silver screen in a desperate bid to continue producing without creating anything original, Les Miserables‘ love story—at a time when the romantic narrative must arm itself with witty cynicism or worldly nuance to rise above its festering limitations, comes off as antiquatedly trite. It must hide behind a grandiose production and the outsider antics of Sascha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter because it is simply too weak to carry the plot, though in the original musical it is clearly identified as the principal narrative thread, all of Hugo’s other subplots and digressions abandoned without hesitation.

The excitement of the insurrection is far more moving than the romance, and here we find another important theme. Of necessity the Spectacle presents us with increasingly numerous renditions of revolution, from Fight Club to Robin Hood. To serve as operations of recuperation, some of these revolutions defeat themselves through extremism, providing a cautionary moral tale against putting ideals into practice. Others attack one aspect of power, say the banks, while reinforcing another, like patriarchy, and others still succeed by piercing the conspiracy, revealing the truth, and allowing the peaceful masses or the good institutions to make everything right, leaving the actual transformation to play out off camera. How is the rebellion of 1832 recuperated?

This question is difficult to answer, just as today’s spectators might have a hard time placing the story’s defeated revolution in the genealogy of their current liberty. William Wallace fights against an evil king—the bad kind of authority—and the voiceover in the final scenes assures us that the Scots eventually won their freedom, a fact that their recent opportunity to vote on independence can only confirm. In one of Mel Gibson’s many remakes of Braveheart, Patriot—the one set during the American Revolution—the relation between the heroic struggle portrayed and the audience’s consequent lack of need to struggle is even more obvious. But what about an attempted political revolution in 19th century constitutional France? On the one hand, the dissidents’ decision to take up arms is an admirable flaw, when they really all should have just married well and joined high society. On the other hand, their rebellion is presented as an idealistic spirit—most purely embodied by Gavroche, the fearless child—that we are meant to believe eventually triumphed, though it can be carried on just as easily by the final scene’s marching masses as by armed insurgents.

What makes up for the story’s ambiguity with regards to revolution is the parallel plot of redemption. The State is redeemed in Javert’s mercy, the Church is redeemed in Bishop Myriel, and the bourgeoisie are redeemed as the guarantors of Marius and Cosette’s eventual happiness (suggesting a curious window on the American Founding Fathers’ replacement of Locke’s “property” with “the pursuit of happiness”).

Do you hear the people sing
Lost in the valley of the night?
It is the music of a people
Who are climbing to the light.

For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies.
Even the darkest night will end
And the sun will rise.

They will live again in freedom
In the garden of the Lord.
They will walk behind the plough-share,
They will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken
And all men will have their reward.

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring
When tomorrow comes!

The Christian moral—wait, pray, and all will be well—comes through in the final song. And the presence of that moral in the three generations of the telling, at the adolescence, decadence, and twilight of modernity, suggests a continuity that is both obvious and inadmissable.

I don’t know how the tale was received by its original audience, but by the third telling, the love that holds up the contradictions in the narrative structure of Les Miserables is not the cupidic escapism of its young paramours, but the love of God that provides transcendental weight to the promise of redemption, overwhelming the failed, forgotten revolution’s promises of transcendence.

We can argue, and with good reason, that during the Enlightenment science replaced Christianity as the religion of the State. We should not, however, forget Christianity’s paradoxical persistence. It is a key force in nationalist movements from Ukraine to Venezuela, and an important tool for turning exploited populations against revolution, winning obedience to state authorities, extending capitalist property relations around the world. In South America and Africa in particular, Christian missionaries serve in many ways as advance scouts for logging and mining companies. And Christianity’s close cousin, Islam, is effectively building states throughout Africa and Asia in places where European colonialism failed to do so.

Anarchists in this century do not talk as much about religion as an animating force for the apparatuses of control, and if we do, we tend to understand it as a force in the lives of people who have not progressed as far in their civilizational development, whether the backwater under the microscope is South Carolina or Kenya.

We might speak of two distinct figures that represent the exploited during the Christian and then the scientific phases of capitalist accumulation; the zombie who is enchanted and set to work and the golem who is constructed by its master, made of broken material, simple dust. Christianity simply robs the soul to create workers, counfounding its slaves or holding them captive to metaphysical blackmail, while scientific power gives the masters an architectural control over the environment and reproduction of their subjects, not merely enslaving them but creating them out of whole cloth.

But this progression of distinct phases owes too much to the fundamental eschatology that Christianity and Western science share. In practice, the two modalities of power operate simultaneously. In a platonic world where body and spirit have been alienated, in a Christian world where the body has been shamed and the spirit captivated, in a capitalist world where the body has been enslaved and the spirit has been banished, and in a scientific world where the body has been mechanized and the spirit disproven, the apparatuses of control lack an animus.

They (by which I suppose I mean the conduits of apparatuses that exist to evaluate other apparatuses) can measure the power that flows between the conduits and captives of a given apparatus, binding and differentiating them. But they are also aware of the limits of a captive’s identification with their apparatus, a certain melancholy among conduits that acts like friction, decreasing their conductivity and even halting production. And they have seen cases of a grim nihilism that arises from time to time, causing captives to act like barbarians and handle their apparatus with brute violence and against its design, or one that spreads more invisibly to conduit and captive alike, causing them to blur and desert their roles.

Even in a well designed apparatus, the flow of power is not enough to motivate the conduits or bind the captives to their role. The threat of punishment is also a necessary element, but too honest to be left in the open for long without delivering diminishing returns and augmenting risks. The people need to be animated through an affective allegiance with an entity that cannot disappoint them by changing the terms of the contract, as any institution of power will eventually do when it capitalizes on whatever trust has been deposited in it. That entity is their own longing, the first glimpse of transcendence, the very substance the State has always worked to control or destroy.

If in its first millennium the Church aimed to keep the spirit out of the commoners’ grasp, effectively creating a less spiritual world by enclosing it in Latin scripture and in the Holy See and stamping out one of the most frequent heresies—that the Holy Ghost spoke to everyone who listened—now it is one of several institutions whose purpose is to divert the miserable and the wretched from a nihilistic confrontation with a dead, scientific society by dangling in front of them a new spirituality, controlled as the old one was but not so tightly, for the new permissible spirit is accessible, on sale, and adaptable to consumer demand.

While traveling recently in South America, I got to see this aggressive marketing firsthand. The evangelists are at the forefront, but is it overly paranoid to assume that one pope was recalled and another was elected to jumpstart a new Catholic evangelism in South America? From one country to the next, billboards announced mega-revivals by visiting evangelists from the US, each eager to expand their fief. And the growth of evangelism goes hand in hand with popular support for snitching, mining, policing, the eradication of indigenous cultures, and development in general. I also came face to face with a revived Christianity’s effectiveness at dealing with potentially destabilizing mental illness and subversive cynicism, when I got to know two truck drivers. The first was batshit crazy, and the second was a jaded ex-revolutionary who had been imprisoned during the dictatorship and evidently was not impressed by what the socialists had accomplished in power (a disenchantment that for some people leads to radicalization, but that has driven entire, forgotten generations into the arms of God).

The first driver told about a girl in Brazil who was dead for a week and then got resuscitated. While dead, St. Peter took her to visit heaven and hell so she could tell everyone about it. In hell she came across the Pope, hung upside down for being a Catholic, and Celia Cruz for her lascivious lyrics. She also spied Michael Jackson.

“For molesting children?” I asked.

“For dancing backwards, contrary to the spirit of God,” the driver told me with a straight face. He went on to explain that the King of Pop was surrounded by moonwalking demons, tormenting him to eternity for his linear perverseness.

Like I said, batshit crazy, the kind of person who would undermine any rational discourse of social control, if the Church hadn’t given them a ready made set of fantasies and bugaboos to fixate on.

I thought I would like the second truck driver more, because I learned off the bat that he had been a political prisoner. During the first hours of our shared drive, we spoke about the dictatorship, the current government, and the struggle by indigenous people in the region. Then the sun set, he turned off the radio, looked over at me, and asked if I believed in God. The following hours were Hell, as he aggressively tried to convince me that people were evil, and that quinoa was God’s way of letting the natives know about Jesus, since the Bible didn’t arrive until much later.

When he stopped to help a stranded driver replace a spare tire, I told him, “See, you’re a good person!”

“I am not good!” he shrieked, tears forming in his eyes.

A slow learner, I finally decided it was a mistake to try to have a reasonable conversation with him. I will never know what happened to that truck driver in prison, why he hated himself, and to what extent the corruption of his socialist former comrades affected him, but it seemed clear that Christianity mediated it for him. Love of God as hatred of self and hatred of society, but also an opportunity to do good in a safe, non-projectual way that requires no emotional risk, since the end is already written. Without that, I doubt he would have been able to function as a productive member of society.

Who can doubt that Christianity today is both innovative and on the cutting edge of social control, when they consider the great currency that Christianity has among the mad and insane? While the pills that are meant to regulate the emotional unreliability of the golem remain imperfect, the opiate of religion succeeds in redeeming millions of depressives and psychotics, casualties of capitalism who would otherwise turn to a destabilizing lunacy, as socially useful subjects. After all, good Christians may play out their paranoid persecution fantasies while faithfully serving as snitches, taxpayers, workers, and soldiers. Faith can be the release for their madness, a belief in human evil as the non-heretical expression of a manichean nihilism, and they never need to see the inside of an asylum.

The simultaneity of a Christian modality of power with the modality of scientific social control is also evident in the affective allegiance that can only exist for the subjects of a totalitarian state. Even in this age of scientific rationalism, people can experience a transformative rapture when they surrender themselves to the absolute power of a bureaucratic institution.

In the abstract this hypothesis, or any other that could ascribe such passion to a bureaucracy, seems doubtful. But imagine what it was like for the arrestees of the Greenscare, locked up in the dungeons of the State, their entire future in the hands of the FBI. When they broke and agreed to become snitches, did they feel the warm rush of clemency, like the kiss of the papal ring? Giving themselves over to the advances of the long-shunned State, did they suddenly find themselves in the presence of God, as Winston Smith finally found Big Brother?

With the invention of the golem, spiritual matters should have been put to rest. The living world has been utterly destroyed, ground to dust, and our new bodies—our new selves—are made from that dust, constructed in arrangements that suit the needs of power and set to play in a Garden of Eden that is really just one big factory. How could cyborgs dream? Yet dream we do, and become depressed, and sometimes go off the deep end and paint the canvass of our misery with a red more real than acryllic tones can simulate (guns will be blamed, though fortunately in the last few years the disarmed nations have increasingly belied this allegation with enthusiastic uses of knives and automobiles).

I know very little about the old Buddhist states, but I can imagine that if they had grown to install a world system metaphysically organized atop the opposite pole in a similar mind/matter dichotomy, with a capitalism that measured accumulations of peace and duty rather than trade and production, eventually the body—that misleading shadow of the false physical world—would reassert itself and require more archaic institutions of state authority to coddle and distract its longings, always in a sphere that did not intersect with matters of the spirit.

So it is today. The golem still dream and cry—but if they are fabricated beings made of the dust of the old world, perhaps Democritus went awry in looking for the atom in the too-small-to-see, for if even dust contains dreamings the atom must be the universe itself—and they must be given something great and out of reach to love and to fear. The subjects of state power are no longer living beings, and there is a cathedral built atop each of our past defeats. To pay homage we are told we must walk in through the doors. On arrival we’re not sure it’s what we were looking for but we mouth along with the rite to assuage our doubts, just as the last grandiose song in a bad musical tries to divert our dissatisfaction.

But the body cannot walk to the spirit any more than the spirit can wish itself a body.

Work continues, disappointments stack up, hairs go grey and bellies flab, the tables and chairs where we sat in our passionate debates empty out, the street that was a bonfire is an apparatus again and the memory no longer seems worthy of passing on because of the inarticulate confusion it provokes in us. Yet the sense of something greater, immediate and unreachable, something that gives us courage, that could wrap us in the strongest of embraces and protect us through death or defeat, mocks us from all directions.

A Predictable Journey

The Hobbit, the Chase Scene, and the Suspension of Imagination

The first cinema installment of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, was visually stunning, technically faithful to the book (even in its revisions), and benefited from having at least a few serious Tolkien geeks working on the project. Notwithstanding, everyone who collaborated with the film, and this goes for Lord of the Rings as well, deserves to be hung from a tripalium and flayed to death, as any reasoning person would agree. For its fundamental faithlessness goes far beyond its replication of the original plot, although The Two Towers struck out on those grounds alone, when Aragorn fell off a cliff (in a part of Middle Earth where, I’m pretty sure, there are no cliffs) just so he could come back in a touchingly Hollywood, “Hey bra, I’m not really dead!” scene; when an army of elves marches (lockstep, no less) up to Helm’s Deep to help fight off the Uruk-hai; and when a fickle Faramir kidnaps Frodo and Sam and hauls them all the way back to Osgiliath before having a change of heart (“Oh Faramir, I knew you wouldn’t let us down!” the seasoned reader and the unread moviegoer are meant to say in unison).

aragorns-cliff

Nor is it the weakness of two central characters: Bilbo, whose particular mix of timidity, decor, and wanderlust is missed entirely by the screenwriters and actor Martin Freeman; and Thorin, whose actor looks far less like a dwarf than Richard Lee Armitage looks like a troll; nor the juvenile subplot of mistrust and acceptance that passes between them.

This last defect, however, points to a deeper problem. The cheap Hollywood fake-out infests these movies like orcs plague Moria. It is there when Aragorn falls off a cliff in The Two Towers, it is there in The Hobbit when the dwarves ride a collapsed scaffold down about a hundred meters of chasm in the bowels of the Misty Mountains with nary a broken bone, a veritable roller coaster ride that may have been, a friend suggested to me, deliberately inserted into the movie in preparation for the inevitable theme park attraction and video games. It is there when the stubby-legged protagonists successfully outrun warg-riding orcs, as the faster villains close the distance only to lose it again each time the camera cuts. And it is there when a human-nosed Thor (did his agent stipulate that he got to act without any facial prosthetics?), looking more like Rasputin than the son of Thrain, approaches a newly heroic Bilbo as if to rebuke him, only to embrace him in a painfully predictable repeat of that well known Hollywood ploy.

The fake-out is everywhere. It is hard to imagine Indiana Jones, and most other action movies, without it. In the film adaptation of The Hunger Games, for which the book’s own author writes the screenplay, one of the few deviations from the original comes in the form of a chase scene fake-out. Instead of encountering the wolf creatures at the relative safety of the “cornucopia”, Katniss and Peeta encounter them in the woods and have to outrun them, something they can only accomplish through the munificence of the camera work.

The only tasteful occurrence of a fake-out I can think of comes to us in The Empire Strikes Back, when an estranged Lando Calrissian berates Han Solo and then suddenly hugs him. In this case, neither the audience nor Han knows how old friend Lando is going to receive him, and Lando is introduced as someone both dangerous and mysterious, qualities which his subsequent affability does not erase.

Bilbo, on the other hand, has just saved Thorin’s life (this never happens in the book, so the whole scene is gratuitous from the get-go), so we all know that honorable Thorin is going to thank him, not mistreat him. Nonetheless, we are forced to sit through a long moment of contrived tension as the dwarf approaches Bilbo in apparent anger before suddenly embracing him. Likewise, when Aragorn falls off the cliff or the dwarves fall down the chasm, we all know they are going to live, not only because most of us have read the book, but because the movie has signaled to us from beginning to end which genre rules it follows; in this case, that no character will be killed off until a sufficiently dramatic, conclusive point in the narrative.

The real Thorin is too grave a person to toy with the poor hobbit’s emotions, for the same reason that he is too gruff to spare Burglar Baggins the emotional conflict the filmmakers have unfortunately decided to exaggerate. The relationship between Thorin and Bilbo given to us by J.R.R. Tolkien is already full of strife. Why invent petty conflicts to exaggerate it, or bring it up to an infantile surface?

The puerile emotional play of the fake-out reaches its cheapest extreme in the Hollywood chase scene. The minimum requirement for an intense chase scene is the close getaway. If the villain travels at 30km an hour and the hero at 15km and safety is 100 meters away, why start them off at a distance of only 10 meters? Is the audience assumed to be sensorily incapable of realizing that the warg travels much faster than the dwarf? Kropotkin outran his faster guards and escaped imprisonment in St. Petersburg using geometry, the problem of the hound and the hare. Movie heroes only ever outrun orcs, T-Rexs, avalanches, and meteors, thanks to the fact that every time the camera cuts, their pursuer loses at least a good 10 meters.

By contemplating the largely subtextual conflict between Bilbo and Thorin, by imagining Kropotkin’s escape, a reader may have as much excitement as their imagination permits. But imagination is precisely what the movies kill as they provide stimulation through an almost mechanical milking of the viewer’s adrenal gland, offering up stimuli at the most basic reactive and chemical levels: a vision of falling, the image of pursuit, raised voices and gestures of anger suddenly reconciled. Why the atrophied adrenal glands, when most viewers have lived far less adventurous lives than Bilbo Baggins even before Gandalf carved a sign on his door? He at least gardens, an exercise in hope and suspense foreign to the most veteran players of video games.

One is reminded of the junkie, whose only pleasure comes in more frequent doses.

It is not disbelief that is suspended, but imagination itself, for a robust imagination finds no marrow in such petty provocations.

The true faithlessness of the movie derives from the use of cinema to fix imagination. Ours is not a caricatured Luddism that hates and fears the movie form itself. The movie as an art form can do things that the book as an art form cannot, even when the former is a rendition of the latter. No less than Edward Abbey said that Lonely Are the Brave was better than his book (The Brave Cowboy) in everything but the title. In recent years, the Coen Brothers have excelled in crafting original pieces inspired by literary works that are neither superseded nor trampled, that are left untouched on a parallel plane of artistic creation.

Ours is a principled and historic Luddism that strikes back at that which assaults us. The greatest strength of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are that these are tales within a mythical cosmos that is highly developed yet unbounded, known through completed stories and unfinished fragments rather than through encyclopedic certainty. They form “a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story – the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths” in Tolkien’s own words. In truth, the movies are a greater travesty for the participation of Tolkien geeks who have been drawn to the power of the silver screen like Easterlings to Morgoth. For those geeks can fill in the backcloth, bring it closer, define it and thus limit it. Radagast and Dol-goldur unmet were left to the imagination. They were a distant mystery both to wee Bilbo and to the reader. Brought into the foreground of The Hobbit‘s narrative, however, they are cast in megapixels, frozen as though in the dragon’s gaze.

The movies have surpassed the might of the old books. Now, there is a website, thehobbit.com which opens with Martin Freeman’s face and music from the film. Googling any of the characters from the books will bring up interviews and images of the actors from the movie. An image search for “The Hobbit” brings up, in the first hundred hits, only images of the recent film. None of the amazing book covers that have appeared over the years, none of the hundreds of renditions of characters and scenes from various artists, not even stills from the 1977 cartoon movie, which, despite a few factual errors, is far truer to the book.

Evidently, the idolization of The Hobbit is nothing new. But contrary to how the earlier engravings did not preclude a reader’s own imaginings—and those imaginings retained sovereignty—the new movie overwhelms all the prior renditions and imposes a definitive set of images.

In one of the important philosophical debates of the 5th Century BC, idolization was attacked in part because it fixed divinity in a bounded, concrete image. A counter to this argument is that the attempt to universalize divinity as an amaterial abstraction is to alienate the physical world and to flatten an array of places that had been defended from their subsumption to any rational, administerable grid through the exceptionality of localized relations of worship.

Curiously, both abstraction and idolization serve to substitute an active practice of spiritual commoning. Spiritual interaction with a boundless world requires one to take imaginative initiative in forging the intangible relationships they feel a need for. Interaction with an idol requires merely ritualized appeasement (which, it should be noted, is easily taxable—probably why the Catholic Church brought idolization back). Interaction with an abstracted divinity requires obedience to commandments. In this latter case, one no longer even chooses their relationship with what has become an omniscient higher power.

Once the abstraction of the divine had alienated the world of its divinity, free relationships take refuge in the imaginary. As the State advances, our imagination takes us to increasingly distant worlds. These worlds also need to be enclosed.

In the movie theaters, The Hobbit was preceded by an advertisement for tourism to New Zealand that tantalizes viewers with images of mystifying mountains, spiritual journeys, and constructions from the film itself, open to visitors. Just as an authentic hobbit village is constructed on fixed ground, the geography of Middle Earth is fixed to the film’s shooting locations. In a perhaps unconscious, perhaps inevitable twist, Tolkien’s explicitly European imaginary is imposed on colonized land.

In an alienated world, idolization becomes the process of fixing the imaginary, bringing the many flights of fantasy back into contact with the commodity form. But it’s not about making money. The reason the State is busily sending its apparatuses into the imaginary goes far beyond a vulgar economism or any simple need to take advantage of the success of Tolkien’s ouevre and make some money off of it. The present enclosure is every bit as much a measure of social control as the “strategic hamlets” set up in the Vietnam War. Even when imagination is used as nothing more than a harmless form of avoidance, apparatuses will arise to bring it back into the fold. Capitalism permits no escape.

A story well told encourages the audience to imagine themselves in it, and to invent stories of their own. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, in particular, is a structure that invites fantasy, because rather than a story he created an entire world with the power to draw one into it. None of Tolkien’s narratives are closed structures; they all invite further exploration, opening more questions than they close. An active imagination is powerful precisely because it can create new worlds and allow us to travel between them, whether these are worlds of escape or worlds that contest capitalist reality and the State’s designs on our future.

A variety of institutions, from MGM, to Google, to the New Zealand tourism department, have converged to fix the imaginative world of Middle Earth to a specific geography and set of images. The result of all these maneuvers is to atrophy the mind’s eye under a barrage of hyper-produced, objective stimuli. And just as the commodity substitutes the satisfaction of a desire, the apparatus of the movie theater, with its immersive experience, now in 3D, substitutes the joy of imagining with the pleasure of sensory stimulation. The movie succeeds in this underhanded endeavor precisely because its representation of Middle Earth is so thorough.

Tolkien’s storytelling creates an intense longing to visit the magical place he has constructed. This longing is a special feeling, as it can never be satisfied. The reader will be enticed to imagine themselves a bridge to that world, but the visit cannot be definitive. The tension caused by uncertainty encourages further imagination, and the longing causes discontentment with the lack of magic in the present world. The sounds and images of the movie, convincing in their fullness and even backed up by a real hobbit village awaiting exploration in New Zealand, provide the illusion of visiting that unreachable world. Their effect is to extinguish longing. Just like a commodity, whose value is extinguished in the moment it is possessed, the movie appears to satisfy the desire to know a fantastic world when in reality it kills it. While this is happening, the viewer is overwhelmed by stimuli. But when the film is done, they are numb. The fantastic world has proved to be hollow. There is nothing left but to seek another fix. One more year until the sequel, and in the meantime, there seem to be some good apocalypse movies coming up, and of course, the video game.

The mechanical milking of the adrenal glands the movie accomplishes with its frequent use of the fake-out clues us to the fact that this imagination-destroying act is in fact a productive process. The apparatus of the movie theater uses its power to reproduce an unreachable world, and thus gives the audience the simulacram of the appeasement of their longing, to create an emotive bond. This is a case of power/affect. By allowing themselves to be enticed by the idolization that is accomplished within the theater, relieving themselves of the need to formulate their own relations with the imaginary, the audience surrenders their fantasy world, they turn their imagination over to the proper authorities, allowing its enclosure and alienation.

The result is not merely the chance to make a few million bucks off a story that before was only minimally commoditized, or a few million more off of tourism to New Zealand. What is produced is a generation of captives who are incapable of imagining other worlds, and who are dependent on a host of apparatuses to manage their yearnings.

To Beach or Not to Beach

He walked out into the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of an intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.” –The Road, (130)

The Road is a post apocalyptic sci-fi novel, a love story, and a dark and inspiring metaphor for the nihilist project of destroying this world. Contained within this metaphor are meditations on myth, identity, symbolic culture, innocence, why we do what we do, and how we evaluate the consequences.

molotov

The story takes place roughly ten years after a nuclear war has devastated nearly everything on earth. Almost everyone is dead, and almost every last can of food has been scavenged. Dead naked trees pock the ash blanketed landscape falling one by one as time goes on. Seeds no longer germinate and there don’t seem to be any living animals, bugs, birds, or fish. The only remaining life as far as we can tell are the handful of humans who have survived the immediate aftermath and now wander about choking on ash as they forage and/or hunt other humans. There is talk of the existence of communes but we never encounter them or learn anything about them other than the fact that those exiled from the communes can be identified by missing fingers on their right hand. McCarthy tells us nothing about why the bombs went off. This is not a story about war or global politics. It is a story about a Man and a Boy, a father and a son, and the love between the two of them, “each the other’s world entire”(6).

We encounter these two characters just as they determine that where they are offers nothing but grim certainty, “There’d be no surviving another winter here” (p.2). They set out to change their conditions by venturing into the unknown; heading towards what is for them merely a vague notion, The Beach. Without knowing what to expect and with no way to accurately calculate an outcome, they decide to risk everything in order to create a condition for themselves in which new possibilities can emerge, rather than endure their current situation in which only one thing is possible. All they have to guide them is an old torn up roadmap that is difficult to decipher, partially because it was made for navigating a world that has since changed significantly. The road is dangerous and promises nothing, but the misery heaped on them by circumstances over which they had no control has made traversing it necessary.

Along the way the Man and Boy struggle to stay fed and hydrated. The stores and houses they search through have already long since been ransacked many times over. They have to remain hyper vigilant because there are marauding bands of cannibals. Natural selection seems to have favored those most willing to be organized and vicious:

He woke in the morning and turned over in the blanket and looked back down the road through the trees the way they’d come in time to see the marchers appear four abreast. Dressed in clothing of every description, all wearing red scarves at their necks. Red or orange, as close to red as they could find. He put his hand on the boy’s head. Shh, he said.
What is it, Papa?
People on the road. Keep your face down. Don’t look.
…An army in tennis shoes, tramping. Carrying three foot lengths of pipe with leather wrappings. Lanyards at the wrist. Some of the pipes were threaded through with lengths of chain fitted at their ends with every manner of bludgeon…Bearded, their breath smoking through their masks…The phalanx following carried spears or lances tasseled with ribbons, the long blades hammered out of truck spring in some crude forge upcountry…Behind them came the wagons drawn by slaves in harness and piled with goods of war and after that the women, perhaps a dozen in number, some of them pregnant, and lastly a supplementary consort of catamites ill clothed against the cold and fitted in dogcollars and yoked each to each.”(P 92)

At one point they stumble upon a pill box buried in someone’s yard fully stocked with food and water and various other supplies and sundries. Compared to life on the road, this comfortable hiding place resembles heaven on earth… Here they can enjoy the same basic material comforts as a prisoner, three hots and a cot, and about as much freedom. They stand no chance of improving their situation – of realizing any desires beyond mere survival. And the danger remains, any minute they could be caught helpless. On the road they can see danger coming and hide or run in any direction, they can also spot tracks and see if someone is on the road in front of them and avoid them, whereas in the bomb shelter they would be trapped like rats, one way in one way out. They decide they want more. They want the Beach.

The story flashes back briefly from time to time, sometimes to the Man’s memories of life before the fall, other times to a third person narrative or earlier events that lend context to the story. Some flashbacks are to what the author refers to as “the early years” in which “The frailty of everything [was] revealed at last. Old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night.”(28) One is to the day when the bombs went off, and another is to a couple weeks after that when the Boy was born. One of the more profound and disturbing flashbacks is to the night the Boy’s Mother decides to take her own life “…with a flake of obsidian…Sharper than steel. The edge an atom thick.”(58)

Is Hamlet’s monologue the meditation of a criminal? He merely declares that if we had any certainty of being annihilated by it, death would be infinitely preferable to the world as it is.”(Schopenhauer, Studies In Pessimism)

The Mother’s suicide shatters the Kantian imperative regarding humanity as an end in itself (although she might affirm that this would be a fine act to “universalize”). Her existence combined with sentience produces only tension, which she resolves with a nihilist cadence. She openly acknowledges that this is a selfish act that will have an impact on those who care about her and she does so not just unapologetically but in a way that is callously triumphant. She mocks what she perceives as wounded manhood in her soon to be widowed husband and the absurd notion that he could somehow provide a life worth living for her and her son. She tells him death is her lover who will give her what he can’t. She is the one with the courage to embrace the nothing. “As for me my only hope is for eternal nothingness and I hope it with all my heart. He didn’t answer. You have no argument cause there is none.”(57) Here, McCarthy takes that vulgar concept ‘sanctity of life’ that still haunts our culture, that serves power in its quest to erase the option of ‘nothing at all’, and iconoclastically ridicules and thrashes it. “And she was right. There was no argument.”(58)

Sci-fi authors have a way of using fiction to critique culture and power that is similar the means used by more academic social critics. For instance, what scholars like Nietzsche and Foucault offer with their genealogies that is of value to us iconoclasts is a means of rendering arbitrary and contingent the concepts and power structures we engage with in our daily lives that societies take for granted as being legitimate and sacred, universal and immutable. By examining and deconstructing the historical processes, the material and political conditions in which certain concepts gained utility for serving power and control (i.e., normalization) we can see how for example: normal and deviant, sane and insane, able bodied and disabled, masculine and feminine, white and of color, super-ordinate and subordinate, guilt and innocencen, etc., are not pure natural existential states but mere reifications acting as currency within a specific economy of power. And once the grid on which these elements operate is altered or destroyed they can all cease to exist or take on entirely new meanings and functions (like how paper currency became wallpaper after Argentina’s economy collapsed). Sci-fi authors do a similar thing by constructing a hypothetical future or an alternate past or present in which they can playfully imagine other social contexts where these concepts might have either different uses and meanings or possibly none at all.

The characters in The Road exist in a world that has already been destroyed. The material basis for the social relations that created the world we know has been annihilated by nuclear warfare. McCarthy shows us in his fictional scenario how–without having some social utility or institutionalized power structure to serve–once seemingly universal acontextual truths of human existence like justice, time, identity, morality, history, sanctity of life, innocence, community, progress, etc. all become useless anachronisms. There is a part when the Man points a gun at an attacker and explains a bunch of esoteric neuro-science about what is going to happen to the attacker’s brain when he pulls the trigger. The attacker asks, “What are you a doctor?” the Man replies, “I am not anything.”(68) No identity predicated on any category can have any meaning absent a symbolic culture in which to contextualize it. None of the characters in this story have names, “Who is it? Said the boy. I don’t know, who is anybody?” (49) McCarthy eulogizes in this story not just the death of people and infrastructure, but also the death of symbolic culture itself:

He tried to think of something to say but he could not. He’d had this feeling before, beyond the numbness and dull despair. The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought…The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality.”(88) “The last instance of a thing takes the class with it.” (28)

Beneath the veil of abstractions, of spectacle and hyperreality, of social relations mediated by images, of culture and politics, we inhabit a world of bare ahistorical chaos and pure possibility just like the characters in this novel. The amenities in the world you and I live in are more abundant than what these characters have available, but the universe of abstractions that make up culture and meaning and a moral order are just as arbitrary and made up in both worlds, except that the characters in The Road have more control over the mythologies around which they orient their lives and gauge their decisions.

The man pretends to the boy that their life is given meaning by some cause that precedes and anticipates them, that exists outside of them and that can still exist even if they’re not alive to conceive of it. He tells the boy that he is appointed by god to protect the boy. He creates for the boy some millenarian myth of them “carrying the fire”. Carrying the fire protects them from harm and as carriers of the fire they do not engage in the behavior of the marauders, they don’t rape, kill, or cannibalize. The Man knows there is no such fire; he is only interested in protecting and comforting the boy. He does not do this because he believes their world contains any possibility of restoration or redemption. He is simply concerned with creating the least tortured existence he can for his son which sometimes means offering him a myth laden with hope, sometimes it involves holding a gun to his head ready to kill him before the cannibals find him. This is not a religious man. The closest he comes to prayer is a soliloquy in which he asks god if he has a neck by which he could throttle him. He has witnessed not only the death but also the cremation of god, the scattering of his ashes. But as Bataille tells us “The absence of god is no longer a closure: it is the opening up to the infinite.” It is greater and more divine and “(in the process I am no longer myself but an absence of self; I await the sleight of hand that renders me immeasurably joyful.)”(Absence of Myth, 48) For the boy, “the fire” is that sleight of hand.

We create myths for ourselves as anarchists, historic ones, they tell us where we came from and where we’re going and why our suffering is meaningful and redeemable. At times we even secularize the fundamental principal of eschatology: that history is not complete until God’s plan is fully realized in a human dimension. This myth-making can be helpful for us in the same way it is helpful for the Man and the Boy, it is a means of making sense of our choices within the context of conditions that are utterly absurd. But we are not agents of redemption here to restore humanity after its fall from grace. There is no state of grace and innocence to return to. There is no predetermined order that awaits humanity’s arrival at which point everything settles into its place and history stops. McCarthy’s story refuses any narrative of hope or redemption; he simply reveals choices and actions and consequences that occur in a chaotic ahistorical vacuum for no reason. Worlds come and go and the end is never the end and even if it is one day, it won’t mean anything because there will be no one around to conceive of it.

Where men can’t live gods fare no better…Things will be better when everybody’s gone.
They will?
Sure they will.
Better for who?
Everybody.
Everybody.
Sure. We’ll all be better off. We’ll all breathe easier.
That’s good to know.
Yes it is. When we’re all gone at last then there will be nobody here but death and his days will be numbered too. He’ll be out on the road there with nothing to do and no one to do it to. He’ll say: Where did everybody go? And that’s how it will be. What’s wrong with that?”(173)

After watching the Lars Von Trier film Melancholia, in which a giant planet crashes into the earth destroying it, I stood on a hill overlooking the entire bay area and imagined seeing a planet beyond the clouds hurtling towards the earth and contemplated a sudden fiery end. As I watched the machines below with their lights and smoke crawling over the gridded landscape as well as the flying ones above, I tried to imagine what this place looked and sounded like two hundred years ago. Armageddon has already come and gone here. I didn’t notice because I wasn’t around, just like the Boy who never experienced the world of the Man. For those who lived here for thousands of years, the entire world as they experienced and understood it has been obliterated by a series of catastrophic events that still continue. All I’ve ever known is the aftermath, that is my world. Like the boy, I’ve heard stories of what it was like before but those are “…thing[s] which could not be put back.”(287). To us these characters seem to be simply running out the clock in the hopeless futureless debris of the old world. I imagine we might look the same way to someone from the destroyed world that used to exist where I live now.

The choices we face are similar to the ones faced by the characters in this story (which I’ve chosen to read as a parable) . Sometimes we want to hide out from the worst of it in the shelter, hoping to just comfortably enjoy each other’s company unmolested for a while. Sometimes we wish to opt out entirely like the Mother did; when all our options seem to only promise terror and tedium, choosing nothing seems like the most sensible thing to do. And sometimes we make a run for the Beach, even though we know we’ll probably not arrive there and could die trying. “He said that everything depended on reaching the coast, yet waking in the night he knew that all of this was empty and no substance to it. There was a good chance they would die in the mountains and that would be that.”(29) And it’s possible that it’s already or always has been too late, that we could remove the last paving stone and beneath it discover a Beach that’s not at all like we imagined: “Beyond that the ocean vast and cold and shifting heavily like a slowly heaving vat of slag and then the gray squall line of ash. He looked at the boy. He could see the disappointment in his face. I’m sorry it’s not blue, he said. That’s okay, said the boy”.(215) But no matter what we choose on any given day, we have the ability to mythologize about our choices and their consequences however we please.

The next time you light a rag sticking out the end of a bottle half full of gasoline and motor oil ready to destroy everything that stands between you and the Beach, remember, nothing bad can happen to us because we are carrying the fire!

References

Bataille, Georges. The Absence of Myth. New York: Verso, 2006
McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Vintage Books, 2006
Schopenhauer, Arthur. Studies in Pessimism. ebooks. Adelaide. 29 Jan. 2011. Web. 9 Sept. 2012

Booze, Corruption and Rage

So I saw “The Rum Diary”, a film that is based on an early novel by Hunter S. Thompson. This is a great movie to showcase the inescapable but often overlooked fact that the world that we live in is fundamentally fucked up. The movie follows the character “Paul Kemp”, played by Johnny Depp, as he becomes acquainted with life on the island of Puerto Rico during the 1950s. He has moved there from New York City in order to work for a local newspaper. His first experience with that place is a big protest-turned-riot in front of the offices of that newspaper. This is one of the background themes that runs throughout the film – the protagonist lives in an occupied land, dominated by American imperialism, of which he directly benefits from.

As a newspaper journalist, he is given the task of creating a pretty picture with words to inoculate the American tourists who come to the island to have a good time. These tourists are the cash cow for the local economy. They are the people who bring in the money for the whole place, and the newspaper in particular exists to serve them. As a journalist Paul is told to report and write about trivia, meaningless crap, and it is a job that pretty quickly bores him and leaves him feeling unfulfilled. On this island there are stark class inequalities and injustices, and Paul quickly comes to notice them. He wants to report on this for the paper but he is told not to. Journalism like that is simply not what the paper exists for and to print such things would jeopardize the very existence of the paper, an institution that lives a very precarious existence to begin with.

The paper that Paul works for is thoroughly corrupt. From the beginning to the end of the film it is clear that the whole enterprise is entirely rotten. The employees there are aware of this and they openly acknowledge it, but no one dares to challenge it. In order to do the kind of work that they want to do and still make a living, working with that paper is simply the only game in town.

It is a miserable and insincere existence, socially and economically, in a land that is basically foreign to Paul. Given that he comes from the American mainland and does not speak the language, the cultures and customs of the locals seem weird and exotic to him. At the same time, the natural landscape, the ocean, the forests, the beaches, are quite stunning and beautiful. This contrast between natural beauty and social ugliness exists throughout the film.

So Paul turns to drinking. Or rather, he was drinking ever since he first got there, and he remains drinking throughout the whole film. Paul originally comes to Puerto Rico in the first place because he is disillusioned and disgusted with Eisenhower-era America. Drinking helps him to escape all of the ugliness that he sees all around him. Inadvertently though, it makes everything all the more uglier. Pretty much everyone in the film seems to be drinking throughout it, and one gets a sense that perhaps alcohol and intoxication is one crucial element that helps to maintain this world of shit.

And then there’s capitalism. Paul eventually meets and befriends a wealthy capitalist landowner named “Sanderson”. Through him Paul finds a reprieve from the tedium of his established routine and a mildly interesting escape into the wonders of high-class society. He also gets to experience first-hand how vastly different life is for the wealthy compared to how it is for the majority of the people who live there. He also experiences first-hand the intense hatred that exists in people’s hearts because of the combined domination of class and imperialism.

This hatred and alcohol-induced madness eventually results in him being attacked by some locals, which then results in him getting arrested. When it seems like prison is a near certainty, he is saved by the capitalist white guy (Sanderson), but his freedom comes at a price. Essentially Paul is to be a pawn in a land grab and development scheme and his role is to provide some good PR for it. Paul never is really that comfortable with this arrangement.

Then there is the woman character, named “Chenault”. She is the wife of Sanderson and Paul is deeply attracted to her. Chenault is somewhat interested in Paul, is bored with her life as a 1950s housewife and high-class socialite, and eventually decides to suddenly leave her situation in Puerto Rico altogether. Before that happens though, Chenault at one point leads Paul and Sanderson into a situation at a local night club where the two of them are thrown out, she remains dancing there with some of the local men, and she is possibly sexually assaulted by them. That part is never clarified, and as with many things in this movie everything is shrouded with a kind of alcohol-induced haze and a prevailing sense of dissatisfaction.

That episode eventually results in a breaking point where Sanderson and Paul’s friendship ends, Chenault decides to leave, and the lack of Sanderson’s protection (social, legal and financial) then causes the law to come after Paul again. The corruption of the newspaper results in that institution finally collapsing as well, and at that point Paul decides to go rogue. He leads an attempt for a kind of workers’ expropriation and self-management of the newspaper during a critical window of time before all of the newspapers’ property is lost. It’s an inspiring attempt, but it fails.

At that point Paul is completely done with all of it. He is entirely fed up with his work with the newspaper, the situation in Puerto Rico, and the whole political/economic/social system that surrounds it all. He decides to steal a boat owned by Sanderson and to leave the island. He is a changed man, and closes the film saying:

I want to make a promise to you, the reader. And I don’t know if I can fulfill it tomorrow, or even the day after that. But I put the bastards of this world on notice that I do not have their best interests at heart. I will try and speak for my reader. That is my promise. And it will be a voice made of ink and rage.”

Thus begins the career of the Hunter S. Thompson that we all know and love.

At Least They’ll Let Us Have Our Misery

“Fuck you, mother fucker! I don’t need this shit!” 

I was about 3 or 4 when I went with my father to his work. He was a super (like a head janitor and handyman) at a convalescent home at the time. I really didn’t know why I was going with my father to this place, I just know that we were taking a detour from the everyday routine of leaving the day-care I spent my days at while both of my parents were at work to somewhere new. We walked into the office where a lady with black hair was sitting. She seemed uncomfortable and seemed to be much more rigid and ‘formal’ than any of the adults that I had come into contact with at the time. My father then proceeded to let lose a varage of curse words at the lady behind the desk and a short argument ensued. When it was finished, we then quickly left the convalescent home and I realized that I had witnessed something very “cool:” a shitload of cussing at someone in authority! When I asked my father why the incident had transpired, he replied that it had to do with money and his boss not treating him how he wanted to be treated. As we drove to our home, I discovered a new sensation in my father’s truck; I realized it was pride.

In the last couple months, I’ve been thinking a lot about that incident. What are the ways in which every day, people accomplish great feats in the midst of the seemingly most mundane. In part, I’ve been thinking about this a lot due to a new collection of graphic novels that I’ve discovered: American Splendor that deals primarily with the issues of class, alienation, love, work, and life in a working-class neighborhood. It hails from Cleveland, which is a city that has given the proletariat two incredible gifts. One is the hip-hop group Bone-Thugs and Harmony, and the other is Harvey Pekar, the author of the series and inspiration for the 2003 film of the same name.

 

I grew up collecting comic-books. I admit it, I was into that shit. First was the Marvel and DC greats of the time, X-Men, Batman, and Spiderman (so many men!) Then, I drifted off into other territory, mainly Dark-Horse books such as Aliens vs. Predator and other dark and gory sci-fi titles. But, there was one comic that eluded me until I was older, American Splendor. Like many people, AP was introduced to me through watching the 2003 film of the same title, which I watched repeatedly several years ago and recently re-watched. The films borrows a lot from the comic, which is centered around the life and times of Harvey Pekar, a ‘working class intellectual,’ a street fighter, a thief from work, a jazz lover, a neighborhood icon, a serial divorcee, a loving husband, and a file clerk. He writes of himself: “A buddy once called him a working class intellectual. He’s a scholarly cat, but the way things worked out for him, he wasn’t able to get much formal education. He reads a lot and is a published author but has had to support himself by working menial gigs. Long ago he resigned himself to that.” AP doesn’t fit in with most comic books. There are no superheroes and no animals that can talk. It also doesn’t read like a normal comic; each book is usually 60-70 pages long, and includes several different stories of different lengths. Each story is also usually illustrated by a different cartoonist, some of them in a cartoony style, others in almost photorealistic pose. Over the course of the book’s life, Crumb became the most famous illustrator of AP, as it became another book which gave even more fame to the underground artist.

 

There are many themes within American Splendor; many of them dealing with class, alienation, and the surrounding question of what one should actually do with your life. When I say class informs much of Pekar’s work, he does not come across as a militant, a unionist, or a communist or anarchist (although he makes references to all of them in his writings). His class based politics and consciousness comes across as extremely genuine and organic. It is also a sort of tension. For much of his life, after a series of menial jobs and dropping out of community college, Pekar takes a job as a file clerk. It’s a job that he dislikes because it is work, but also one he enjoys because he likes the people that he works with and because it gives him inspiration for his writing. Furthermore, the routine gives him order to his life and the comfort that his bills are paid. We often get the feeling that Pekar has such high anxiety, that the work he does actually helps he relive some of the street. The pay, which isn’t a lot, is at least enough for him to live on. It’s also a job that brings him into contact with a lot of middle class people such as doctors, which he often holds in contempt or has strained relationships with. And, it’s this alienation based on class and having a consciousness based on class that informs and continues to come up in Pekar’s work again and again.

Pekar isn’t an academic, he’s had almost no ‘formal education’ outside of high school, yet he reads non-stop and devours works on literature, history, economics, and politics. His relationships with many of the people at his work are strained because his ideas are often over their heads. Yet, he also feels uneasy around academics and university types. His attempts to make it as a writer always fall short. American Splendor always just breaks even. The small amount of publicity that it does get him usually doesn’t make his work blow up or allow him to get the credit that he feel he deserves. As the years wear on Harvey, he does manage to get some of his work published in magazines and journals, starting with reviews of jazz records and then moving onto essays on political and historical subjects. Still, as someone outside of the academic world, it’s hard for a file clerk to make it or gain any sort of credibility. It’s this class divide that infuriates Pekar, as well as his dealings with mainstream publications who review his work such as the Village Voice.

 

Pekar describes this anger: “He finds it much more difficult to get his political and historical articles accepted. However, since he has no reputation as a writer in those fields, he must buck an establishment of college professors and “name” journalists, who editors favor because of their reputations.” Motherfuckers. This is better than anything they’ve printed in six months. But they turn it down because they never heard of me. Assholes, I wonder if they even read it.” Pekar knows that the mainstream media is dirty, but he also sees the class glass ceiling in it as well, and knows that his talent should rightful shatter it.

 

He comments after one of his articles is published in an African-American magazine: “But he makes progress. He gets some articles on African History accepted by a magazine aimed at Black readers. He’s still bitter about things in general though.” [It was easier to get this stuff published because so few people know anything about African in this country. Dumbass college History professors here mostly learn about th’ Western hemisphere and Europe. They don’t know shit outside a’ that.]”


Class tensions also are a constant theme in Harvey’s relationships. He often feels that women who find his hobbies and intellectual pursuits interesting look down on him for being a working-class guy and a file clerk. Furthermore, many of his interactions at work he finds boring and intellectually un-fulfilling. It’s a catch 20-20, that so many of us ‘readers’ and ‘thinkers’ of the working-class end up discovering while in the work force. You’ll always be the weirdo at work; that “faggot” who sits there and reads a book while the other workers shoot the shit. And, while the opposite sex might find you intelligent, they still don’t want to take you to meet their mother. It reminds me a lot of the time a guy bought me a corn dog right before we went to work at the latest construction site delivering cabinets and I told him I was vegetarian. He just gave me a look of disgust and disbelief. My current girlfriend, who comes from a solidly upper-middle class background (by Modesto standards) as well has yet to take me home to the folks. Once a family friend saw us together and told her, “Don’t worry, I won’t tell.” When I inquired as to what that comment meant, she replied, “Oh, you know, look how you’re dressed.”

 

In an exchange with one of his best friends at work, Toby, who rose to fame on MTV as a ‘genuine nerd,’ Harvey explains to him why he thinks that the characters in the film, “Revenge of the Nerds,” are nothing like him. “It’s an entertaining flick an’ I c’n see why you like it, but those people on the screen ain’t even supposed to be you! They’re college students whose parents live in big houses in the suburbs. They’re gonna get degrees, get good jobs and stop bein’ nerds. They’re not twenty-six year old file clerks who live with their grandparents in a small apartment in a ethnic ghetto. They didn’t get their computers like you did, by trading in a bunch of box tops an’ $49.50 at the supermarket.” To Pekar, class is a lived reality, but also a consciousness that informs his take on the rest of the world. It’s a way of measuring and evaluating interactions with others and it’s one that I enjoy because his perspective on class is very similar to my own.

 

The reader should be keen to keep in mind however, that Pekar is not an activist. He doesn’t spend his time marching or protesting. He is however, very politically engaged and very solidly political with the people he lives with in his neighborhood. In some stories we catch him discussing gentrification with an older woman and racism with others. He finds many activists to be self-centered and dishonest people, although several anarchists he meets in 1980’s Boston he describes in a positive light: “What I liked about Marty and Sal was that they had real warmth, real empathy for people. I’d known a lot of radicals and agreed with them on a lot of issues, but not all were real nice people. Some were arrogant, power-hungry, even dishonest. Some didn’t really care that much much, except in an abstract way, about the poor people that they said they were trying to help. These guys gave me a good feeling, they even looked like a radical idealists should look, like guys in a depression era play by Clifford Odets.” It would be unfair to say that Harvey dislikes ‘counter-cultural’ types – for he is one. A ‘beat’ to be exact, or perhaps just a jazz enthusiast. Towards the end of his life, Harvey wrote a book about the Beats including Ginsburg and Kerouac. We don’t really see him taking drugs, but he definitely isn’t a “square.” At the same time, his poverty stricken junk food diet often leads him into confrontation with other none four-sided objects. Remarking on a trip to Portland: “Now these people live in a commune an’ everybody in the commune is into pure food. I’m not, so it caused me a little problem at breakfast the next day.” [Say, uh, you got any cornflakes?] [Cornflakes? Are you kiddin’? We have some granola that’s about the closest thing.]”


Harvey’s condemnation of class-society extends beyond just the shop floor. After leaving jury duty in one story he explains: “That night I thought more about the so-called justice system in this county and got madder and MADDER. Rich people like Nixon and Agnew go free while some poor people get years in the slammer for committing far less serious crimes. These right-wingers bitch about all the crimes in this country. But they don’t have any idea how much some a their values have t’do with causin’ it. America is a country where competition rather than co-operation is praised, where it’s thought that society will benefit from people being set against each other.”


Just as Harvey enjoys the ‘community’ of work, he also enjoys the neighborhood he lives in. He quips: “You need a community of friends, it really helps ya keep goin’. Findin em though, that’s sump’n else.”

Women, however, are also a constant theme. Harvey is married and divorced several times, often at the end of drawn out downward spirals with his partners. Harvey’s lifestyle of constant reading and record-collecting drive mean female friends away and put strains on extended relationships. In the end, he meets and ends up marrying a woman named Joyce, an activist and a prison English teacher. She would go on to write a book about the Iran-Contra scandal and who’s ideas would deeply influence Pekar. Like Harvey, she’s a voracious reader and bookworm, and came into contact with him after writing to obtain a copy of American Splendor. Meeting Joynce would also influence Harvey into taking a stand on the David Letterman show, a TV program in which Harvey was a constant guest, usually brought on just to be made fun of. On one appearance however, Harvey wore a t-shirt in support of striking NBC workers and Letterman had him kicked off.

 

Pekar also has a mean streak with women, many of whom he quickly decides can’t look past his blue-collar, even though he considers himself smarter than them. After being blown off in one encounter he exclaims: “Lousy cunt. I’m ten times as smart and knowledgeable as her or any guy she ever went out with. She got a nerve brushin’ me off.” This is a theme that has seemed to follow Pekar throughout his life. In school he wrote: “…most of the students have wealtheir parents than he does. Partly because of this, he is socially backwards, afraid to ask girls out.”


Race is another them in Pekar’s writings. Harvey is not a racists and has several friends of color also himself comes from a working-class Jewish background. Being white, he “…grew up in an area full of blacks and italians where the best fighters got the most respect.” Although crime is an issue in his neighborhood, he cautions in his stories about being the victim of thieve who are black that: “There’s no point in getting self-righteous about black crime when you consider how many Europeans have slaughtered each other. Besides there’s too much variety among human beings to judge individuals on the basis of a racial or a national stereotype. It’s disgusting to see someone have an unpleasant encounter with a person and condemn an entire ethnic or racial group because of it. The guys who stuck me up dumped my wallet in a parking lot. It was found and returned to me by a black couple who seemed genuinely sorry about what happened.”


Above all, Harvey simply tries to find meaning in his life and cut through the alienation of everyday life. He realizes that his life revolves around capital: his entire routine, his off-days and time, his eating habits, where he lives, what he can afford, his transportation, etc. At the same time, Pekar does not want to be defined by this, and seeks instead to rise above the awkwardness and tension that is intrinsic within him and become widely recognized for his hard work and creativity. The problem was, not many people were buying. Despite great reviews and appearing on Letterman, sales of AP often were piss-poor, and Harvey after paying for the book to come out himself often was left with a lot of copies that simply collected dust.

 

For working-class readers of AP, the pages come alive not because the stories are the most thrilling or even that exciting. Some of them are extremely mundane and sometimes cheesy. But, we do see ourselves in them and are able to recognize in another person’s life that class, work, and where you live in fact do matter. They shape the kind of person we are, the quality of life that we have, and often the interests and circles that we travel in. Pekar’s thoughts and experiences are often liberating to read when day-in and day-out we are bombarded with images and stories of working-class characters that are presented as lazy, stupid, and ignorant.

 

Recently I watched the film, Baby Mama with my girlfriend and was extremely disgusted. In the film, a working-class couple agree to have a baby for an upper-middle class woman who is willing to pay $100,000 to an agency. In the film we are taught a couple of things: middle class people’s problems are funny because they are so trivial brought on by their wealth and privilege. Working-class people’s problems are their fault however, brought on by their stupidity and laziness. Again, this narrative only enforces the ideal that the poor are so because they are stupid and the middle class manages us because we can’t look after our selves. We’re idiots, over-sexed, and a danger to ourselves without supervision.

 

Perkar’s world is much different – and in many ways much more terrifying. What are we doing with our lives that are completely animated for the sake of profit-extraction? For Pekar, the search for this meaning often leads to extreme depression. (At one point in his life he contemplates buying a ticket to Miami in order to starve to death under a palm tree). How do we live our lives as we wait for the majority of our years to be sucked away by those in control over this world? How do we find meaning in the remaining hours? Perkar tried to find this meaning –  often in the most mundane and everyday stories of regular people in Cleveland that he lived next to and worked with. And that is a beauty that can never be taken away or distorted.

 

The truth about real, genuine working-class art and literature is that it does show that our lives are shit. Things are bad. We aren’t happy. We take drugs, and drink, and sometimes hit our kids. We aren’t paid enough but try and live like we are. We are not having fun and we do not enjoy our position. Our work does not define us, it rules us. But this is not a result of our stupidity or simply the nature of things, but the result of systems of violence and class rule. Pekar’s work illustrates this wonderfully, and presents an intelligent, political proletarian as its center piece which states its case.

 

Pekar passed away in 2010. He will be missed.

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).

Dark Passage

A review of the film The Death of Mr. Lazarescu by Cristi Puiu which records the rapid passing of a man who has been living day to day an impoverished lonely life of drunken stalemate in a decrepit Bucharest apartment. The logic of his decline ends with his death on a trolley in a hospital’s operating theatre prep room.

A review of the film The Death of Mr. Lazarescu by Cristi Puiu

Some things shrill as they are about to cross a threshold. But it is strange how the ringing becomes melancholy; like a knell, when it heralds departure…

Walter Benjamin The Arcades Project(c3,5)

Every cultural artefact both internally records and externally actualises passages between different states. The artefact’s content records threshold transitions and border skirmishes: from life to death; from drunkenness to sobriety; from love to indifference; from revolt to acceptance; from one formal tone to another. At the same time it records the failure to traverse the connection between any, or all, of these  –  every passage closes. It also records those passages which do not manifest as oppositions or serial developments but which are purely associative in nature (As beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella). And without reference to any content, the artefact opens (inviting palynology) passages between its production as a historical object in the world and its subsequent receptions. That is to say, the artefact becomes a means for mediating social relations through multiple channels.

The film The Death Of Mr Lazarescu records the rapid passing of a  man who has been living day to day an impoverished lonely life of drunken stalemate in a decrepit Bucharest apartment. The logic of his decline ends with his death on a trolley in a hospital’s operating theatre prep room. Mr Dante Remus Lazarescu has liver cancer, but he also suffers a bleed on the brain following a drunken fall into his bath. After a long initial delay, he is eventually picked up by ambulance following the intervention of neighbours. From the outset, he is evaluated as a low medical priority. His type, as an old single male, with chronic alcoholism and a terminal illness, triggers every latent hostile reaction in the nightshift clinicians who attend upon him. No cure is possible in his case; within the discourse of medicine there is no answer to Dante Lazarescu’s problems; and where there is no hope, levels of care also dwindle. Therefore, in the logic of the film, Mr Lazarescu must function in his own story as Dante without a Virgil. His descent into non-existence, without hope of redemption, appears simultaneously in the domain of his own biology and in the register of institutional process.

From a paramedic’s first contact and filled in questionnaire, the responsibility for Mr Lazarescu’s existence passes from his own capacities, and that of the care of interested others, to the discretion of the ‘healthcare provider’ apparatus. At this point, the communist critic reaches for the theoretical term Biopower in his attempt to describe the absolute technical capacity for scrutiny of the individual’s existence by the institutional apparatus which seems always to be coupled with the delivery of that intimate indifference which such power engenders. As soon as he embarks on his long journey, Mr Lazarescu experiences the exacting procedures of institutional dehumanisation by which his person is deconstructed into his component organs. And each of his organs being the responsibility of a different departmental specialism.

Mr Lazarescu is also plunged into the internal politics and resource scarcity that consume the greater part of the health system’s energies. He is shunted between four different hospitals as a low priority case and receives no care over a 6 hour period whilst his condition steadily worsens. The structuring of the system ensures, rather than militates against, the neglect that he receives. That which appears as a right to the individual person, in this case the right to an appropriate and standard level of hospital care, is supplied, in the interest of the institutional service provider, as a secondary product of the healthcare apparatus.

The cybernetised institution prioritises the delivery of ‘rights’ (individual packets of care) in the form of a quantifiable output of its engineering of life processes at a population-wide scale, and responds not to individual claims upon it but only according to modifications of its written targets and protocols. The delivery of its product to individual consumers proceeds from the rationalisation process of its technocratic structure, that is to say, it manufactures a standard product for society-wide distribution, it does not enter into a nuanced patient-centred relation.  Any subsequent discrepancy between individual expectation and the system’s actual delivery may only be recorded within the system as an inevitable, if anomalous, consequence of standardised procedures. It monitors its effectiveness solely in terms of successfully meeting a mean distribution for achieved minimum thresholds. There is no inbuilt corrective feedback of, no interactivity for, complaint.

The patient is subject to, and has no capacity to rectify, a layered hierarchy of system management, the great accumulated force of which is only delivered by ‘front-end’ staff to patients at the end of a very long cycle of strategic intervention at the population level. State targets and programmes are strategically planned by the designated departments and delivered on an integrated province wide scale according to assigned resources; tactical implementations and administration loops are effected on an institution by institution basis; and the priorities and limits placed on patient to patient decisions are made through a window on clinical intervention as that appears to medical staff under enormous topdown  directive pressure (proceeding always from abstract planning to individual case). That the optimum window, as far as the patient’s interests are concerned, is often missed is a direct consequence of the character of such ‘provison’. Institutionalised services in the end, and at the beginning, always serve as a matter of priority the programmed requirements for the processive reproduction of the systems themselves as distinct from any stated goal of the service; which becomes just one measurable output to be set against others. This means that the tolerable level of patient mortality is indexed to cost thresholds.

Within this, already weighted, environment, the patient becomes subject to those twists of fate and luck which highly rationalised systems seem to generate as decisive components of the apparatus. At the level of individual experience, what might be called, after Chekhov,  ‘Ward Six’ phenomena, immediately come into play. These are the extremely capricious variables in both care and outcomes which transform individual experience within  rationalised environments but which register as statistical exceptions for the systems’ monitors: one might, by stroke of life-enhancing luck, encounter the good nurse on the ward with a terrible reputation; one might, unluckily, have had a swab sewn into the wound; a norovirus outbreak might lead to the shut down of wards, having a ‘knock-on’ effect on operation timetables: or one might be reduced to a sort of football kicked between departments, none of which wishes to pick up the cost of treatment at a time where cut-backs are imminent and cost-cutting efficiency measures are demanded. The patient always appears within an institutional circumstance defined by its tumultuous turnover (of staff, of material, of patient flow, of money) which leads him to understand that if he had been taken ill one year, one month, one day earlier (or later) then his case might have turned out so much the better (or worse).

We are left in no doubt that Mr Lazarescu would have received different and better care, if he had not encountered those doctors at that moment under those conditions.  His situation is openly compared unfavourably with that of the victims of a coach crash who arrive at the hospital at the same time. From the perspective of those attempting to deliver an impoverished service, coach crash victims appear as innocent patients whereas Mr Lazarescu has nobody to blame for his misfortune but himself. He is an object of barely disguised disgust and revulsion. Medical staff criticise and mock him. He is incontinent of urine. There are never sufficient staff available to adequately attend to him. He is at the back of the queue until he is moved to the back of another queue. There are not enough operating theatres or MRI scanners. He is refused an operation because he cannot give consent to it. He is incontinent of faeces. He passes into an acute confusional state and his words make no sense. Doctors pull rank over the paramedic accompanying him and refuse him treatment even as she insists on it. They send him back out into the night. There will be no consequences. There will be no inquest. There will be no protest. Every decision has been made according to the protocols. The ambulance’s progress through tunnel-like streets of the Bucharest night is uncertain and directionless. By the time the paramedic has located a hospital which is prepared to treat him, he is in a coma, and it is too late.

The process by which Mr Dante Remus Lazarescu becomes neglected, is also that by which the film connects him to a dying potentiality which could only be realised through him. This flickering potential, a shadow in his shape, a shadow that is the image-object to which the care of others might be attached, and which has hitherto only appeared within a set of relations defined by his insignificance, is both realised by the film and closed out unrealised by the institution which it portrays.

Biopower forecloses on all discourses of redemption and seeks instead to realise, or manufacture, the tangible potentials which it identifies in individuals. Where no useful, achievable, measurable potential is identified its institutions find no purpose, nothing to work on – the shadow, the potential that is care for care’s sake, is dispersed. Mr Lazarescu’s lonely fate is also the fate of the potential that is his alone and which he might have realised in a life lived otherwise. At the end of his life he carries his shadow down into the void. And a potential for society, with him as one of its centres, an alternative circumstance structured on other relations, and other procedures, other means of caring and prioritising, dies with him.

So the tiny woman closed the shutter of the cottage window and fastened the door, and trembling from head to foot for fear that any one should suspect her, opened a very secret place and showed the Princess a shadow… It was the shadow of someone who had gone by long before: of someone who had gone on far away quite out of reach, never, never to come back. It was bright to look at; and when the tiny woman showed it to the Princess, she was proud of it with all her heart, as a great, great treasure. When the Princess had considered it a little while, she said to the tiny woman, And you keep watch over this every day? And she cast down her eyes, and whispered, Yes. Then the Princess said, Remind me why. To which the other replied, that no one so good and kind had ever passed that way…

Dickens Little Dorritt

As is often the case with people in his position, Mr Lazarescu has effectively ceased to exist long before the moment of his death. All that is left of him, at the end, is a poor, bare, fork’d animal, trapped somehow in an arbitrary and unhomely place; head shaven, naked, alone, lying under a thin sheet on a trolley in the company of unfamiliar others for whom he is little more than the pretext of their work. He appears before them, in the crepuscular glow of their non-recognition, at that threshold between the night and morning shifts, in the prep room adjacent to the operating theatre, as nothing more than their work. They attend upon him because they are paid to do so.

Mr Lazarescu, as an individual, has lost his autonomy (as this is paradoxically defined by the caring intervention of others). He has nobody at the end to carry forward his identity, his uniqueness, the memory of him.  He has become absolutely subject to his environment. It is no accident that two other characters of the film are named Virgil, as the importance of the witness, the companion, the guide, the one who will plead the case, is demonstrated throughout the film by his absence. Dante is an alcoholic. He lives alone with three cats in a dirty flat. He has no wife. He has a daughter but she lives in Canada. His neighbours are ambivalent. He has nobody who will accompany him in the ambulance as it descends into his purgatory.

Benjamin writes problematically, So difficult is it for man to relinquish his place and allow the apparatus to take over for him (S5a,2). And yet, also so easy. The communist critic assigns himself the task of reopening those meandering passages to the question of the difficult individual as an end in himself, precisely those passages which have been progressively filled in by apparatus-rationale as it pursues frictionless operations at the macro scale. The critic’s purpose is not only to subject capitalist instrumental rationality to critique but also to problematise the use-value based assumptions of left ideology as expressed in the advocacy of workers’ self-management of production.

Within the field of his commitments, every critic illuminates passages between the internal opposites that are belonging to his field; he is an anarchist to the communists and a communist to the anarchists; he connects the profusions of spectacular wealth to the abject reality which sustains it. He seeks to open passages to the real world from the fantastical and to reveal passages to the fantastical, the life lived otherwise, from works of social realism. But he is not merely a mining engineer of latent social connection. He also explores the passages that lead to answerlessness, that come to a dead-end, the labyrinths of the mute and immobile; the very non-passages and disconnects which thereby threaten the project he has undertaken.

At the end, at the very end of a long row of booths, as if — ashamed — he had exiled himself from all of these splendours, I saw a poor mountebank, stooped, decrepit, leaning his back against one of the posts of his hut, a hut more miserable than that of the most most brutalised savage, and whose poverty was illuminated yet all too well by two dripping, smoking candle butts.

Everywhere joy, success, debauchery; everywhere the certainty of bread for tomorrow; everywhere the frenetic explosion of vitality.  Here, absolute misery, misery decked out – as a crowning horror – in comic rags, upon which need rather than art had introduced contrast.  He didn’t laugh, this poor wretch!  He didn’t cry, he didn’t dance, he didn’t gesture, he didn’t shout; he sang no song, either happy or sad; he didn’t plead.  He was mute and immobile.  He had renounced, he had abdicated.  His fate was fixed.

le vieux saltimbanque Baudelaire

FD

Making Anarchism Sexy?

a review of Die Welle
2008, Dennis Gansel

Germany After the Third Reich

One of the most pervasive aspects of contemporary German culture is how to address the legacy of the Third Reich, or indeed, whether to address it at all. Many Germans express opinions like, ‘Do we constantly have to be reminded of those years? It cannot happen again. We have learned the hard way that fascism is wrong.’ Perhaps this is the case. Penitent and redemptive themes course through post-war Germany. Any display of national pride outside of a soccer match is frowned upon. Former concentration camps are now tourist destinations. Even the rise of militant left-wing groups such as the Rote Armee Faktion (Baader-Meinhof Gruppe) are to some degree reactions to Germany’s Nazi legacy.

The German state has made many concessions in the post-war era. Its immigration laws for Eastern European Jews are laxer than those of the state of Israel. The payment of funds as outlined in the Treaty of Versailles, which had been suspended by Hitler, were reinstated (and have recently concluded). Strict censorship of racist speech and Nazi iconography is enforced.

Individuals, especially intellectuals and artists, have responded in their own varied ways. Often these responses are deeper and more perceptive than the state is able to formulate without undercutting its own legitimacy. Die Welle is one such response. It is significant that this film is set in contemporary Germany. For at least the past decade German cinema has been preoccupied with retrospective historical films. This is a curious phenomenon, especially when contrasted with the perennial self-congratulatory WWII films out of Hollywood. The U.S. cinema is obviously engaged in upholding the mythos of military “liberation” to justify the country’s dominant position in world affairs. The films coming out of Germany are more nuanced and introspective; slow to condemn or to praise.

The Pedagogy of Reverse-Psychology

The film raises numerous questions about education. It is set at a Gymnasium (roughly equivalent to prep schools in the US, though public and less formal). The main character, Rainer, is a cool teacher, the sort who allows behavior in class that other teachers would not tolerate and whom the students call by first name. More importantly, he is one of those rare teachers who takes his profession seriously. He is motivated is to reach his students by giving them a personalized learning experience rather than the rote pedagogical experience so common in the schooling system.

At about 40 years old, Rainer is an old-school punk. His allegiance is to working-class struggle (“1 Mai, immer dabei!” – “Long live May 1!”) and “anarchy,” in some sense. He is initially greatly disappointed at the beginning of the term to be assigned to teach the Autocracy seminar, instead of the Anarchy seminar. But he decides to make the most of it, and to teach the pitfalls of autocracy, of fascism, by example. In only a matter of days the Autocracy class is transformed into a fascist cadre, complete with its own uniform, logo, salute and name: Die Welle (The Wave). Several students are unwilling to go along with this charade. To these Rainer gives the ultimatum: conform or switch classes. The Wave quickly escapes the bounds of the classroom in numerous ways. The unintended consequences of Rainer’s pedagogical approach impress upon the audience the dangers of authority, even when wielded by the most well-meaning and anti-authoritarian individuals.

Though I tend to agree with the polemical thrust of the film, I found the responses of characters to the Wave to be unnuanced. First, the dissidents’ perspectives were not explored as thoroughly as they might have been. One prominent character has a gut-level aversion, but no character expresses theoretical opposition besides a facile individualism. Second, the reactions of students within the Wave are almost entirely uncritical. Perhaps this is accurate, in that obedience to authority opposes critical thought. However, it seems very unlikely that not a single student involved in the Wave – a class on autocracy, after all – would not clearly perceive the real lessons intended by Rainer. At one point in the story a student voiced a reformist position, but this was not explored in depth, either. Despite these minor flaws, the film is excellent overall. The pace of the plot development draws the audience in. The cast play their various parts believably and nearly flawlessly.

Near the end of the film Rainer decides it is finally time to pull the plug on the Wave. Only about four characters have come to see the danger that lies in the fascist organization. But the revelation of his pedagogical plot is cut short. Though the Führer, he has unleashed a social force that he cannot control. The Wave must break upon the shore, but before it does it drowns those caught up in it.

Anarchy in Die Welle

Anarchism figures rather prominently in the film’s plot. As mentioned above Rainer embraces an anarcho-punk identity. He does not hesitate to make the Anarchy class, and anarchists generally, into the enemies of the Wave. It is not long before Wave students find themselves in street confrontations with punks. When I visited Germany a decade ago I was told that gangs of punks and neo-Nazis were known to battle. This was before I was aware of anarchism and antifa, and I would be interested to know whether anarchism and punk are more closely knit in Germany than in the U.S. Whether or not such clashes are as frequent as I was led to believe, they are clearly prominent in the German pop-cultural collective consciousness. Punk is not dead… in Germany, at least. Despite being the archenemies of Nazis, anarcho-punks do not escape criticism in die Welle. As noted by Rainer, punks have their own “uniform” of black leather jackets. The punks have their own in-group mentality and manner of acting. And two punks in the film act in a manner quite incompatible with anarchist ideals by attacking the weak.

Though anarchists in the Anglophone countries are more likely to be crust punks or hipsters than old-school-style punks, in my experience the criticism of the anarchists in the film are applicable to our real life anarchist scenes or milieus. Depending on the specific scene, conformity may still be enforced, whether of attire, diet or whatever. However, choosing, whether consciously or not, to create an in-group style is probably as old as the human race and not inherently a symptom of authority. Also, as has been made painfully clear time and again, anarchists are capable of reproducing patriarchy, stereotyping and other authoritarian forms. This doesn’t invalidate anarchism, but should rather induce us to try harder to create ways of being outside of the forms of oppression we have identified.

The willingness of the film to engage with anarchism is refreshing. Clearly the writers take anarchism more seriously than the vast majority of those involved in mass media. It is tempting to interpret the obvious contrast of anarchism and autocracy as support of the former. However, I have no compelling reason to be at all certain of such a conclusion. Without knowing the intentions and biases of the film-makers, speculation about why anarchism is afforded a prominent place in the plot of die Welle is useless.

Sex and Other Touchy Topics

Gender and sex play rather significant, if subtle, roles in Die Welle. The Wave’s dissidents are two female students. Rainer’s wife , also employed at the school, voices concerns (which he consistently ignores) about his new pedagogical method. The school principal is a woman. An act of violence by a male against a female is a pivotal plot point. One of the male students has an evidently alcoholic, promiscuous single mother. Another male student with a bad home life is strongly drawn to the despotic male teacher. The implication seems to be that authority and patiarchy are inseparable, or at least mutually-reinforcing.

Pop culture’s unending fascination with youth is undoubtedly part of the appeal of Die Welle; the film’s cast of attractive young women and men is a typical example of that fascination. High school drama plays a fortunately minor role in the plot (I wonder if that epitome of teen drama Degrassi has made it to Germany…). The youth demographic seems to be the target audience given the film’s subject matter and sex appeal. At first I was tempted to write this off as merely a gimmick to put butts in cinema seats. And perhaps it is, but not because the film is exclusively for teenagers. The prominent place of youth in the pop-cultural collective consciousness appears to have been intentionally employed here to make the events of the film appealing and comprehensible to a wide audience. Die Welle is nothing if not accessible.