Sunny (2011)

sunny-dance-end

The deceased has requested dancing at her funeral.

Films about friends during their teen-aged years who reunite later in life follow a familiar set of conventions. The heroine must find her present situation in life stifling and frustrating. One of the friends is suffering from a fatal illness, or has died. The members of the group have for the most part fallen short of their aspirations, and live with the ache of disappointed hopes. At least 1/3 of the clique should have acquired a financial status that is completely at odds with the expectations others had of them when they were young. There is the cool and assertive leader, the wiseacre, the studious girl, the tragically doomed girl, the sensitive artist, and the brash tomboy. The film will use flashbacks to recreate a bygone era in meticulous detail, using the pop music of the time to evoke nostalgic responses from the audience. Sunny, directed by Kang Hyung-chul (or Hyeong-cheol), sticks for the most part to these formulas, but there is enough that is off-kilter about the film that makes it completely absorbing. The second-highest grossing movie of 2011 in South Korea, selling over 7.5 million tickets, it is an example of commercial filmmaking at its most engaging.

The protagonist of the film, Im Na-mi, is a housewife who lives in a luxurious apartment with her successful but extremely busy husband and a standoffish teen-aged daughter. She has the enviable life of the affluent upper-class in Seoul, but of course she feels that there is a void in her day-to-day existence. One day, while visiting the hospital, her attention is caught by the groans of a woman in severe pain. Looking at the name on the door of the patient’s room, she discovers that it belongs to a friend from her high school days, Ha Chun-hwa. Chun-hwa had been the leader of their circle of friends, which they named “Sunny” after the song by Boney M. The film flashes back to Na-mi’s first day at a prestigious girls’ school in Seoul during the mid-1980s, where her family has moved after her father has received a new job. Na-mi appears to be a stereotypically shy transfer student, but the film quickly establishes that there are social and economic divisions at play. Na-mi’s family is not wealthy – it is through her father’s employers that their family is able to send her to the school. Moreover, she hails from Jeolla, a region located in south-west Korea which was largely bypassed by the military government of Park Chung-hee for economic development. The region was also the hotbed of pro-democracy protests, which led to a brutal massacre in May 1980 in the city of Gwangju after a new military leader had taken power in a coup. Thus, when a pair of bullies picks on Na-mi, they insult her with demeaning stereotypes of the Jeolla region. Na-mi is also mortified when one of her new classmates draws attention to her shoes, which are the brand of sneakers derided by girls in the more upscale city.

In spite of these differences, Na-mi is quickly welcomed into a circle of girls led by assertive and confident Chun-hwa. Na-mi struggles not so much to fit in with her friends, but rather to become adapted to a surprising environment. She, and the audience, is taken aback by the rambunctiousness of the classroom – one of Na-mi’s new friends spends most of the class period hunched over a mirror while working on giving herself double eyelids by means of tape, behavior which goes unpunished by the teacher. The other students act out in spontaneous and undisciplined ways, which provides for many comical moments in the film. Indeed, after school, Na-mi is told that the friends are going off to confront a rival group of girls from a vocational school in a standoff over turf. “Don’t worry,” a member of her group reassures her, “we often don’t actually fight because they are afraid of us.” The climactic confrontation with the rival gang of girls takes place in the middle of an all-out street battle between pro-democracy protesters and riot police, in which the girls pick up the shields and truncheons dropped to the ground against each other. The scene is played as comedy, as Na-mi’s gesture of throwing a shield at one of her rivals deflects tear-gas canisters thrown by the police away from the protesters and back onto them.

But if the film depicts the pro-democracy protests, which led to violent clashes with the police, in a light-hearted manner, it cannot ultimately do the same for the Asian financial crisis. There is a humorous moment where Na-mi decides to hire a detective to find the other members of Sunny to fulfill Chun-hwa’s dying wish to reunite the group. Her friend, Jang-mi, who is an insurance salesperson, recommends the investigator who succeeded in hunting her down when she and her husband were hiding from their debts. Why not go with a detective who has proven his worth, Jang-mi asks. But the film shows that other members of the group have fallen on hard times, with one suffering a particularly harsh series of reversals after losing her business. Jang-mi herself is on the verge of being cut from her firm, and tries to sell a policy to the police who have arrested her and her friends after they have assaulted a group of school-girls who are bullying Na-mi’s daughter. The shadow of economic hardship, cast by the near-collapse of the South Korean economy in 1997, still hangs heavy over the country.

The film is deft enough to move fluidly from nostalgic teen comedy to scenes with have a social realist overtones, and it is no less convincing when at the end, it evokes elements of the fairy-tale. Chun-hwa’s fatal illness turns out not to be the central tragic event of the film. Rather, an attack on Na-mi and the violent response it provokes leads to the dissolution of the group. Many years later, the women find themselves hoping against hope that the one friend who was truly lost may at last rejoin the group. The way the film handles this mystery might be a bit abrupt for some, but the remarkable credit sequence evokes the next chapter of their lives, graced by the bonds of their renewed friendship.

The way it used to be.

The way they used to be.

On Frozen (2013) and Maleficent (2014)

“Innocence is most fortunate if it finds the same protection as crime.” – La Rochefoucauld

Both of these revisionist fairy tales take familiar female villains, the Snow Queen and the wicked fairy from Sleeping Beauty, and depict them as sympathetic, if not mostly positive, characters. The motive behind such depictions is to update stories that have misogynistic overtones for contemporary society by reworking them in such a way as to affirm the value of equality between the sexes. But both films suffer from some major flaws, which have to do in part with the need to portray their respective protagonists in a positive light. In Frozen, Elsa and her younger sister Anna are not as fully realized as they ought to be – we get little sense of the characters beyond the difference that Elsa is the cautious older sibling and Anna is the more freewheeling and spontaneous type. Indeed, Elsa’s power over ice and snow comes across as oddly self-contained – there is no attempt to link her gifts to other aspirations and anxieties that she might have. When she belts out her anthem, there’s no indication that she’s letting anything else go besides her powers. If Elsa at last becomes her authentic self while isolated in her ice castle, what is it about her solitude that she finds fulfilling? We’re not given any clue whether “let it go” is supposed to mean “lean in” or “drop out.” I suppose the important thing is that regardless of whether one lets it all hang out or stuffs it all back in, it’s all fine as long as it’s the result of one’s personal choice. But then the affirmation of choice as pure possibility is contradicted by the ending of the film, which is actually quite successful in capturing the spirit of the fairy tales by depicting one sister’s courageous sacrifice to save the life of her sibling.

The archetypal power of fairy tales arises in large measure from their plainly implausible yet stubbornly hopeful endings, which they present with irrefutable conviction as the iron laws of existence itself. The story must end with a resurrection or with a miraculous transformation, and as such is the well of hope and wishful thinking alike for most individuals since the time of childhood. Maleficent is at its most absorbing when it focuses on the experience of this miraculous change, and to its credit the film locates it in the heart of its protagonist, the fairy who causes Sleeping Beauty (called Princess Aurora in the film) to fall into a deep slumber the day after her sixteenth birthday. The film does not start off on the most promising note – Maleficent is a fairy living contentedly in an anarchistic woodland paradise where all the living beings live in harmony and presumably receive their life energy from a giant tree. The narrator moreover tells us that the humans living near the woods were “greedy” and “jealous,” setting up the conflict in which Maleficent will be betrayed by her only human friend, Stefan, out of his ambition to win the hand of the princess and the king’s only child.

On the day of Aurora’s christening, Maleficent arrives to lay a curse on the infant, which the film shows us is an entirely understandable response, if not a morally justifiable one, to her shabby treatment at the hands of the scheming upstart. But the film then takes an unexpected detour in which Maleficent ends up watching over the life of the girl as she grows into her teen years. The first time she appears to Aurora after she has grown, the girl recognizes her as her fairy godmother, and thanks her for keeping her safe during her girlhood. Angelina Jolie, her already strong cheekbones honed to razor sharpness, relates convincingly the emotional turmoil Maleficent undergoes, as she finds her maternal instincts to be far stronger than the grievance and resentment she feels toward her mortal enemy, the girl’s biological father. Jolie does an excellent job evoking the wounded passion and deep affection roiling beneath the surface of a wicked witch’s icy hauteur.

But Maleficent, like Frozen, presents a princess character who is left sadly under-developed. Elle Fanning is given far too little to do in her role as ingénue, though her performance suggests that her character could be as interesting as Maleficent herself. Aurora is a girl who moves between two worlds, a condition which should make for interesting conflicts as it would for an engaging, well-earned resolution. I think both Maleficent and Frozen share a missing element, which is that of education. One of the odd moments in Frozen is when Elsa, for the sake of keeping her sister Anna safe, is exiled to her room. But what does she do all those years she is absent from the life of the court? It would have made more sense for the narrative had her parents engaged some kind of tutor, perhaps a magician of some sort, to teach Elsa how to control her powers. Alternatively, it might have been interesting if she was shown spending those years in study, preparing herself for the responsibility that would come after her ascent to the throne. Similarly, in Maleficent, Aurora is not shown readying herself for her destined future as the queen of two realms. It would have much improved the film had Maleficent taught her magic, or given her some insights into the mysteries of the human character.

But why do both films avoid such scenes of instruction which are par for the course in fantasy narratives about the male hero coming of age? Why couldn’t the film have made Maleficent a little more like Obi-wan-kenobi – it certainly would have strengthened the ties between her and the girl and made it more plausible that the latter would become the ruler of both the enchanted forest and the human kingdom. There is also a missed opportunity in Frozen to show how Elsa’s talent, and her control over that talent, could be a source of both fulfillment and pain. Could the therapeutic nature of our culture be the culprit, in which these young women, because they are already princesses, need to be depicted as not lacking in anything? They are already wonderful, so is there no need to them to change or learn something painful on the way to becoming an adult? What kind of social fantasy does the image of such stasis underpin? A high self-esteem may correlate to social immobility, after all.

On a final note, the true villain of Maleficent, Aurora’s upstart father, is shown to be wicked because he is ambitious. But the film doesn’t reveal what makes him ambitious, nor does it give us any insight into what made him go from kind and decent to treacherous and megalomaniacal. It’s as though the mere fact of being ambitious were enough to make one evil. In a world where wealth is being increasingly concentrated in the top 1%, isn’t it a good idea to work out a more profound understanding of what it is that drives ambitious people?

 

 

My other blog

I have started another blog, “The Worldly Ascetic,” on which I will post my thoughts and reflections about the experience of South Korean modernity. The first post focuses on a lecture given by Emanuel Pastreich at the Seoul Museum of History on Neo-Confucianism and the work of the philosopher and fiction writer, Park Jiwon.

Apocalypse of the Therapeutic: The Cabin in the Woods and the Death of Mimetic Desire

More fatal than the other six.

Deadlier than the other six.

Note: This is a draft of an article submitted to an essay collection focusing on the work of René Girard.

Readers of René Girard are familiar with his thesis that the primary source of conflict in the modern, secular world is rivalry, which is no longer constrained by the sacred hierarchies and sacrificial practices that defined the archaic community. For Girard, the danger posed by the escalation of rivalry and competition in modernity is the necessary and unavoidable consequence of the demystification of sacrificial violence. Although the Bible has succeeded in dispelling the essential illusion on which the efficacy of sacrifice depends, this moral breakthrough has at the same time deprived human beings of the beliefs and mechanisms that enabled them to control violence in times of crisis. The Judeo-Christian revelation has the effect of leaving the world more at the mercy of rivalry and antagonism than ever before. Whereas the hierarchy of class and networks of interlocking duties formerly restrained and moderated competition, whether by curtailing the material aspirations of the common people or by channeling ambition into otherworldly directions, modern society, by removing these social barriers, exacerbates feelings of envy and resentment as equality becomes the defining value.[1] Modernity, in drowning the ambitions of the nobility and the devotions of the religious in the icy water of equality and egotism, brings men to face the real conditions of their life and relations with each other, which for Girard means unconstrained antagonism.

The disappearance of sacrifice leaves only “mimetic rivalry,” which is prone to “escalate to extremes.”[2] According to Girard, the breakdown of the sacrificial illusion leaves modern societies hovering on the brink of apocalyptic calamity, in which the outbreak of mimetic conflict can easily escalate into the effort to annihilate entire peoples. Human beings are thus left with a stark dilemma, in which they must choose between becoming “reconciled without the aid of sacrificial intermediaries” and resigning “themselves to the imminent extinction of humanity.”[3] Although he framed this either-or during the penultimate decade of the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear annihilation hung over the globe, Girard has continued to insist on the relevance of this formula for the crises of the present – the war on terror, ecological destruction, and economic meltdown – on the basis that they remain subject to the possibility of apocalyptic escalation. Yet in his recent books, Girard’s remarks imply that a different interplay of forces might be at work in contemporary consumer society and that his model of mimetic conflict may require some rethinking in light of present-day realities. In one dialogue, he admits that it might be the case that “contemporary individuals aren’t strong enough to have mimetic desire,” a development which he had earlier regarded as unthinkable: “Consumption society, which was ‘invented’ partially to cope with mimetic aggressive behaviour, has eventually created these socially indifferent human beings.”[4] Similarly, in his discussion of anorexia, Girard observes that “our entire culture looks more and more like a permanent conspiracy to prevent us from reaching the goals it perversely assigns to us.” It is thus “no wonder” that “many people want to drop out, as a result of sheer exhaustion, and also, perhaps of a peculiar type of boredom.”[5]

What happens when one loses the willingness or the capacity to copy the desire of the other? The only alternative to mimetic desire that Girard offers in any detail is its overcoming: the spiritual liberation in which one renounces rivalry and gives up the fantasy of one’s exceptional status in a manner that evokes and encompasses the Christian experience of conversion. Can the loss of desire, and the impulse to drop out of an increasingly ferocious competition for status be grasped within Girard’s paradigm of mimetic rivalry, or does it call for fundamental revisions to his theory of imitative desire? Indeed, other theorists such as John Gray and Jean Baudrillard take as their point of departure the dilution and enervation of desire in a society characterized by unprecedented affluence and the dissolution of taboos and prohibitions. In taking up the question of what causes these mechanisms of mimetic desire to unravel in the absence of a spiritual revelation, and how a narrative portraying such a collapse might lead us to reconsider or revise Girard’s theory of violence, I will examine a recent metafictional work of horror cinema, The Cabin in the Woods, as well as the work of Gray, Baudrillard, Pierre Manent, and Philip Rieff. These thinkers focus on the kind of nihilism which Girard, I will argue, underestimates.

The dissolution of mimetic desire that takes place without reference to a spiritual conversion is likely to be a tale of horror, as it points to a psychic condition where there is neither hope nor anything one desires. Yet one of the chief emotions evoked by horror cinema has been the intense desire to live. Carol Clover observes that the “final girl,” the courageous and intelligent female who alone among her friends escapes death at the hands of the serial killer or monster, demonstrates an “astonishing will to survive” in withstanding brutal tortures, repeated reversals of fortune, and severe injuries to escape her assailant and even to defeat him.[6] But recent horror narratives feature endings where no one is spared a violent death, including children and infants, or depict evils that are so overwhelming as to drive characters to suicide. In The Mist (2007), which deliberately evokes monster movies from the more optimistic decades of the American century, a father shoots his own young son to prevent him from being killed by the grotesque creatures that have entered the earth from another dimension. In the comic The Walking Dead (2003-present), the climax to one of its major story arcs breaks a taboo of mainstream entertainment by depicting, in a panel that takes up the entire page, the killing of the hero’s wife and infant daughter. It is an ending that Gerry Canavan describes as the “moment” when “the circuit of reproductive futurity is cut” and “all hope is lost” in the series.[7] Such depictions of suicidal despair are not limited to comics and popular films, nor is the despair merely suicidal – in the art film Melancholia (2011), written and directed by Lars von Trier, the depressive heroine curses all life as “evil” and welcomes the impending destruction of the earth in a collision with another planet.

We could account for the fascination with such unrelievedly bleak narratives in terms of the demand for novelty, since nothing ages more rapidly in modern mass culture than spectacles of violence and transgression, and so even more shocking images must be contrived in order to arouse the interest of the viewer. But these representations of crushing hopelessness and despair evoke the finality of extinction itself, a turn which also indicates the exhaustion of novelty itself. But is it possible to grasp this fixation with extinction and annihilation, an event which is impossible to integrate into any psychic framework or symbolic system, as yet another instance of the escalation of mimetic desire that for Girard defines the modern, post-sacrificial age? Can the “traumatic reality of extinction,” which in Ray Brassier’s view not only erases the future but also voids the past of any meaning, become a proper object of mimetic rivalry?[8] Or could it be that sacrificial murder does not constitute the most foundational form of violence after all, and that there is a violence that is more anterior and thus more foundational still, one which would generate the desire for annihilation itself?

Maybe it gets worse when man finally becomes man to man.

Maybe it gets worse when man is no longer wolf to man.

One of the most promising narratives with which to unravel these questions is the recent horror film, The Cabin in the Woods, directed by Drew Goddard and co-written by him and Joss Whedon (2012). As a work of metafiction, the film operates as a playful, self-reflexive satire when it is not offering up scenes of carnage, but its resolution has special relevance for Girard’s theory. For The Cabin in the Woods culminates in the failure, with apocalyptic consequences, of a sacrificial ritual. Moreover, this apocalypse, which results in the destruction of humankind, results from a decision that, within the moral universe of the film, appears wholly justified and legitimate. The film opens with the clichéd premise of five undergraduates traveling to a remote and isolated house in the country for a weekend of partying. Each of the students evokes a distinct social type, corresponding in turn to the archetypes from whom the sacrificial victims must be drawn: the athlete, the prostitute, the fool, the scholar, and the virgin. The five friends inadvertently summon demonic creatures that attack them in the order one expects in a horror film. But the film also reveals that these creatures are being controlled by a group of technicians working in an underground bunker beneath the cabin of the title. The technicians belong to the American branch of an organization charged with arranging the slaughter of the young as part of an ancient ritual to appease the dark gods that slumber deep beneath the earth. If these “ancient ones” are not satisfied by the bloodshed, they will rise up and destroy all human life on the planet.

The Cabin in the Woods alternates between two storylines. In the cabin and the surrounding environs unfolds a familiar horror scenario, in which the students, in the course of drinking and playing truth-or-dare, come to explore a hidden basement. Descending into the dark and sinister cellar, they come across strange artifacts, which exert an irresistible fascination on the group. By handling these items, the friends cause undead ghouls to emerge from the depths to murder them. In the underground complex, on the other hand, the managers and scientists meticulously orchestrate the events above-ground. They monitor the vital signs of their victims, use chemicals to tamper with their hormonal levels, alter the temperature in different sections of the forest, and prevent escape by blowing up a tunnel. The entire operation takes place in a high tech bunker that calls to mind NASA or perhaps more properly NORAD, given that the fate of the world hangs in the balance. Yet the banter between the two chief administrators is made up mostly of ribald jokes and risqué observations about their co-workers as well as the five doomed youth. They run a betting pool in which the various departments (engineering, maintenance, accounting, R&D, bio med, digital analysis, security, electrical, psychology, etc.) make wagers over which murderous creature will be chosen by the five victims as their executioner.

Both storylines are defined primarily by their comic elements. In the case of the five friends who are to be offered up to the dark gods, the humor arises mostly from the disparity between them and the roles they are forced to play as part of the sacrificial ritual. Jules, the woman who is given the role of the whore in the rite, is in fact a studious pre-med major, and so the organization resorts to adulterating her hair dye to reduce her intelligence and weaken her inhibitions. She shocks her friends with her wantonness when, during a game of truth-or-dare, she plays at kissing the head of a wolf mounted on the wall. She becomes so swept up by her role that her tongue makes contact with that of the decapitated trophy. Later, when she sways erotically to a song with sexually wanton lyrics, the camera cuts to a reaction shot of the virgin, Dana, and the scholar, Holden, gaping in shock and embarrassment. The athlete Curt makes crude remarks about Jules’ sexual desirability and then rubs into Marty’s face the fact that he and not the latter will be having sex with her. Marty, who as the fool is the only male in the group without a female counterpart, is not insulted but puzzled by Curt’s bluster, which he finds uncharacteristic of him. When Dana expresses skepticism toward Marty regarding his suspicions that they are being observed and influenced by shadowy forces, he reminds her that Curt is a serious student who is receiving a full academic scholarship. While Dana and Holden for the most part do not conflict with the roles assigned to them, Marty perhaps fits too well the role of jester for the purposes of the ceremony. Although his head is in a cloud of marijuana smoke for the first half of the film, he is the only one of the five to suspect that something is gravely awry. Indeed, Marty’s behavior proves disruptive and unpredictable to those in the control room, and his words and actions on several occasions threaten to ruin the ritual altogether.

"Your human needs disgust me."

“Your human needs disgust me.”

While the scenes focusing on the young victims usually involve an irony that is not always humorous, the scenes in the control room play out as a black comedy in which the lewd and coarse repartee of an upstart tech firm or too-big-to-fail investment bank is transposed into an institution charged with performing human sacrifice. Making bets on how the victims will be butchered and eager to watch the woman assigned the role of the whore engage in sexual foreplay, the personnel working for the organization in Cabin in the Woods fail for the most part to display the solemnity and reverence one would expect from murderous cults that commit atrocities to placate dark gods. Instead, we are presented with a series of humorous episodes in which the chief administrators, Sitterson and Hadley, make crude remarks laced with sexual innuendo, gyrate their hips to the music played by their victims, and otherwise display an arrogance that would be insufferable if the nature of their work were not straightforwardly horrifying. Only two employees demonstrate a degree of seriousness about the operation. Mordecai, the grim and repulsive old man whose job is to give the young victims fair warning about the sinister history of the cabin – is turned into the butt of a joke when he calls the control room to confide to Hadley his worries that the ritual could turn out badly. Daniel Truman, who is the new head of security, is secretly horrified by the proceedings and keeps to himself, refusing to take part in the betting pool or to celebrate with the others when it appears that the sacrifices have been succeeded in propitiating the evil gods.

At the premature celebration of their success, the lower-rung employees complain about not receiving overtime and make pathetic romantic overtures to each other, while the video screen above them shows Dana being thrashed by a ghoul. It is thus with elation and delight that the viewer takes in the destruction of the complex and the slaughter of its personnel, after Dana and Marty, who also survives the attack of the undead, release all the monsters from the menagerie. What follows is a spectacular encyclopedic montage of post-1970s horror film, as demonic creatures and fantastic beasts set about massacring the employees. Swarming into the complex, the monsters voraciously dismember, devour, impale, stab, strangle, and set fire to panic-stricken scientists in lab coats and managers in button-down shirts. A wraith pulls a guard’s soul from his body, while goblins tear apart their victim and throw half of the bisected corpse against the camera. Zombies feast on mutilated scraps, while a ballerina whose face is made up of fangs pirouettes through the carnage. The sadomasochistic demon from Clive Barker’s Hellraiser tortures an employee hanging upside down from the ceiling, and the face-hugger from Alien leaps onto the shoulders of its prey to implant its lethal egg. The film cuts between direct shots of the carnage and images of the massacre shown on multiple video screens used by the security system, lending a documentary immediacy to the massacre of the organization’s personnel.

In unleashing the monsters on the organization charged with sacrificing them and their friends, Dana and Marty cause the ancient gods to reawaken. An encounter with the director of the organization, played in a cameo by Sigourney Weaver, almost convinces Dana to kill her friend Marty for the sake of saving humankind. In a nod to Carol Clover’s ground-breaking study of horror films, the ritual stipulates that all the designated victims must perish except the virgin, who herself need not die but only suffer. The timely intervention of a werewolf prevents Dana from firing the gun she has aimed at her friend. In the final moments of the film, the two friends, bruised and soaked in blood, reconcile and huddle together to share a joint while the complex collapses around them. The final image of the film is of a giant hand rising from the depths to smash the cabin.

The two groups portrayed in the film – the attractive victims slaughtered above and the leering workers below – are not enmeshed in mimetic rivalry with each other, but it is nevertheless the case that there is an unbridgeable gap between them. It is properly inconceivable for the members of the organization to place themselves in the role of the sacrificial victim, just as Dana and Marty are stunned by their discovery of the organization seeking to offer them up to vicious gods. Although Dana aims her pistol at Marty when informed that the salvation of the world depends on his death, she hesitates because she cannot quite assume the subjective position of the director who urges her to murder her friend. The film accordingly does not stage the “destruction of differences” or allude to the threat of reciprocal violence, both of which for Girard serve as key conditions for the recourse by the strife-wracked community to sacrificial violence.[9] Instead, the characters are too weighed down by their own perspectives to be swept up into the orbit of envy, imitation, and disavowal that enables one first to identify with the object of sacrifice, then dismiss the doomed other to his fate, and finally reap the fruits of sacrifice. The inability to respond imaginatively to the other, even if the ultimate purpose is to ensure his or her murder, appears to sap the qualities needed to bring the brutal and pitiless ceremony to a successful conclusion. Indeed, the brief moment when Hadley expresses his awe and admiration for the pluck and resolve shown by Dana to keep fighting even in the face of impossible odds comes to an abrupt end when he is distracted by the arrival of his subordinates bearing liquor to celebrate the completion of the ritual. Similarly, the one occasion on which Sitterson behaves with solemnity is when he mutters an anxious and fearful prayer of supplication to the ancient ones just after the zombie family has butchered the unfortunate Jules, their first victim.

These latter scenes reveal that the ceremony of sacrifice has degenerated into a sterile, utilitarian exercise. It has become, in the absence of reciprocity, a vacuous, contractual operation which is destined sooner rather than later to run off the rails. The element of reciprocity for Girard both exacerbates rivalry and hastens the recourse of the community to finding a scapegoat in order to prevent conflicts from escalating  into the war of all against all, the ultimate expression of reciprocal violence. The absence of reciprocity in the film, by contrast, has the effect of depriving the organization of perhaps the only effective countermeasure to the possible uncovering by the young victims of the apparatus behind their suffering and death. If a member of the organization were selected to be slain as part of the ritual, perhaps by fulfilling the archetypal role of the adult who makes a courageous but futile effort to save the young victims, then perhaps the director might have succeeded in persuading Dana to save humankind by appealing to her sense of guilt. On the other hand, the neglect of the organization of the advantage of participating in the sacrificial ritual as victims alongside the doomed youth conceals a form of violence that, though notably lacking in mimetic character, sets in motion an outcome perhaps no less destructive than unchecked mimetic rivalry.

The new head of security is in no mood to party.

Only the new head of security is in no mood to party.

For the belief of the technicians in efficiency is far stronger than their awe of the sacred or their fear of annihilation. They are willing to have others die for their sake, but they are unwilling to do everything in their power to prevent the worst of all evils. Indeed, it never occurs to them that there might come a time for them to do everything in their power, because to this point at least one of the rituals, which play out in multiple locations across the globe, including Stockholm, Rangoon, Madrid, Buenos Aires, and Berlin, has always managed to succeed. The ugly reaction of the administrators to the shock of learning that the Japanese team, which had hitherto a perfect record of success, is so unabashed as to be comical: Sitterson leans over the video monitor, screaming out obscenities at a group of intrepid elementary school-age girls holding hands in celebration after having defeated a demonic spirit: “The Japan group should have had this in the bag! They fucked us! How hard is it to kill nine year-olds?” The technicians in The Cabin in the Woods thus exemplify the subjective position in which one is willing to have others suffer and die for the sake of one’s own comfort and well-being but is unwilling to put at risk one’s own life and well-being, even for the sake of defending one’s self. They only come around to fighting for their lives when it is too late and the instruments by which they secure their safety and well-being – or the entities they have instrumentalized for this purpose, turn against them. Such a disposition is not the consequence of mimetic desire running rampant or of its magnification in the competitive capitalist market, but rather of the death of desire, in which the will and attention required for purposeful action are dissipated in advance by the constant need to keep one’s eyes from glancing at an obscure verdict against oneself.

According to John Gray, what endangers desire is the immense affluence achieved by the industrialized world. The high-tech, hyper-capitalist economy that has spread across the globe since the late 1990s is distinguished by the fact that it depends not on “stimulating demand,” but instead on “inventing new vices.”[10] The most characteristic products of an economy “driven by an imperative of perpetual novelty,” which requires the “manufacture” of ever more “exotic needs,” are S&M clubs and drugs like Viagra and Ecstasy. But we would be wrong, argues Gray, to understand the ceaseless production of transgression as the consequence of the cheerful and insouciant pursuit of hedonism. Rather, “designer drugs and designer sex” are not “just aids to pleasure” but more importantly function as “prophylactics against the loss of desire.” Provocation and transgression, and their constant escalation, have become economic necessities in a race to forestall the satiety that would cause the economy to unravel. Yet the constant exposure to formerly forbidden spectacles and experiences cannot stave off the uneasy thought that such a way of life cannot have a healthy and peaceful future ahead of it: “The function of this new economy, legal and illegal, is to entertain and distract a population which – though it is busier than ever before – secretly suspects that it is useless.”[11]

This secret suspicion, and the directionless anxiety it arouses, is what supplies most of the humor in the sequences set in the underground facility, as we come to realize, with a touch of uneasy identification, that Sitterson and Hadley have been unknowingly laughing at their own violent deaths. But the virulent effects of this festering doubt do not spare their intended victims either. Marty, in one of his marijuana-induced soliloquies, gives voice, on the level of everyday wise-cracking, to the sentiment that the social and economic order is undeserving of continued existence: “Society needs to crumble, [but] we’re all just too chicken-shit to let it.” Indeed, it is the decision of Dana and Marty to doom the world that make evident the peculiar psychic deadlock created by this verdict. For although their treatment at the hands of the organization is clearly outrageous and unjust, the two friends do make a choice that goes against the good of all. Yet, the film depicts their refusal to sacrifice themselves as the logical and natural response to a social order that needs to commit inhuman violence for it to continue. Martyrdom and self-sacrifice have become accordingly inconceivable where the only choices are to betray one’s friends or die as a dupe for gloating jackasses. On the other hand, even if one accepts that the decision they reach is an unavoidable one, it is hard to suppress the thought that the two friends arrive at it with inordinate haste. Dana and Marty, in subjecting the world to a cruel demise, are not constrained by the hope that there might be some uncorrupted quarters of human life – for example, the principle that children are innocent of adult vices and should not be punished for the wrongdoings of their elders does not factor at all in their deliberations.

In The Cabin in the Woods, it appears that humankind is annihilated in a fit of thoughtlessness, which evaporates all doubts as well as their not inconsiderable benefits, by protagonists who have come to the realization that there is nothing enviable about their own existence. The ending of the narrative thus poses a fundamental challenge to Girard and his theory of violence. For Girard, what is to be feared most in the demystified, modern age are manifestations of what Nietzsche called active nihilism, exemplified by mass ideological movements that embark on cataclysmic, self-defeating attempts to restore the practice of sacrifice. The collapse of Soviet communism has not caused the threat of planetary conflict to diminish by any appreciable degree. Rather, Girard characterizes the era of globalization as one in which “mimetism has gained ground since 1945 and is taking over the world,” with radical Islam as the most conspicuous form of “violent imitation” that has become the “rule today.”[12] The denial of sacrifice in The Cabin in the Woods, by contrast, implies that the dangers of passive nihilism, having to do with the weariness and decline of the powers of the spirit, should not be underestimated. Indeed, passive nihilism, the hallmarks of which are resignation, self-disgust, morbidity and the readiness to resort to opiates and euthanasia as an escape from these feelings, has become more widespread than the more vigorous and energetic varieties of nihilism in those parts of the world pacified by globalization.

In contrast to the heated and passionate violence borne of rivalry, Baudrillard argues that the violence endemic to the global system of interconnected markets and interdependent economies derives from the impulse to prohibit violence. The global system, spearheaded by the West, seeks to impose a society “in which conflict is virtually banned and death forbidden.”[13] It aims at establishing a monopoly that would subject all cultures to an “unforgiving law of equivalence.” But such an undertaking to proscribe violence is self-defeating and doomed to end in catastrophe, not so much because it stokes mimetic passions and harnesses them to a project of domination, but rather because the global system seeks to universalize itself at the very historical moment when the ideas and values that constitute and legitimate this universality – “human rights, democracy, and freedom” – have become drained of substance.[14] The neglect of “symbolic equilibrium” means that, like the hapless individuals running the sacrificial organization in Cabin, we can no longer properly conceive of being placed in a situation of “having to do everything in our power,” even if it looms right before our eyes. Far from being a sign of our freedom or a proof of our moral progress, Baudrillard likens our exemption from sacrifice to the condition of slavery, in which we have been stripped of the right to give a part of ourselves back to the “technical system of generalized exchange and general gratification.”[15] The deeper source of violence in the global system lies in the fact that globalization is a project advanced by a “culture that has lost its values” and “can only take its revenge on the values of others.”[16] Operating under the horizon of consensus, the global system cannot conceive of the other as anything other than a criminal, and its understanding of itself as “obvious Good” means that, unlike traditional empires, it cannot even conceive of the long-term advantages or strategic prudence of allowing the enemy a right to his otherness.[17] The other, has become an entity whose difference is a temporary aberration and who is fated to share the same pleasures and to submit to the same appetites as oneself.

The destruction of values does not require the exercise of deadly force to proceed, and it can also be carried out by people who have no idea of what they are doing and who possess no awareness of the impact of their actions. Baudrillard’s account of global violence goes a long way toward explaining why Marty and Dana, though lacking malevolent or vengeful intentions, nevertheless act with a hubris that is invisible to them. For the judgment whereby they condemn the world rests on the certainty that the emptiness of their lives, as well as those of their persecutors, is the ultimate destination of modernity. Although they are quick to recognize the global system as destructive and sterile, they nevertheless cannot help giving their assent to its values in their conviction that the deprived will become just as depraved and as undeserving of life as the wealthy should they themselves ever attain wealth and status. They are, in effect, the products of a culture that, in the words of Meic Pearse, has “excommunicated all cultures” but their own, as well as their own “past.”[18] Dana and Marty might chafe at having to be attired in the mantle of the virgin and the motley of the fool for the purposes of the ceremony, but they fail to realize that these costumes are draped over the nakedness of a still more radical commission, that of the mediator, which confers on them the imperial prerogative not to envy or copy the beliefs and dispositions of the other. Accordingly, they find it natural to suppose, or to cling to the conviction, that they have circumnavigated all human desires and found them empty. This belief, to be sure, has nothing to do with arrogance in any conventional sense, because it presumes that human beings are incapable of resisting or rising above their appetites. In other words, it considers its foundations base enough and lowly enough to nullify any accusations of elitism or oppression.

Such an attitude is in essence totalitarian, as it issues from an act of closure toward vital and enduring human realities. It denies that human beings are capable of dedicating themselves to ends and objectives that transcend self-interest. For although Dana and Marty make uneasy references to the need for “a change” and to give “someone else a chance,” the film makes clear that the other for them can be nothing other than demonic. Unlike the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century, the totalitarianism of the present, which, in accordance with what Philip Rieff calls the therapeutic, is based on the eradication of all “renunciatory modes” and “creedal constraints.”[19] It does not impose moral demands on the people for the sake of creating a new society or incite them to persecute targeted minority groups or mobilize them for war. Instead, it is a totalitarianism of the individual, centered on his desires as well as his feelings of powerlessness, which operates through a volatile and contradictory pair of injunctions. On the one hand, the individual is told that it is hopeless to struggle against his weaknesses and appetites. To be human is to submit to nature. No one can sincerely believe that one can have too much money, or that anyone would forgo the sexual opportunities that come with an improved social status. On the other hand, he is also told that, in addition to being equal to others in his submission to nature, the only thing that stands in the way of his efforts to raise his status is an unjust status quo. To be an individual is to be free of the bounds of nature, since nature is merely a social construction that can be reshaped and re-engineered to alleviate one’s resentments and grievances.

These contradictory injunctions comprise the divided and ambivalent heart of a totalitarianism that operates by means of inflated pride and low moral expectations, yet this very deadlock serves as the fuel for a staggeringly prosperous economy. But as Stephen L. Gardner points out, such an economy requires a “vast amplification” of personal and public debt to keep the resentments and grievances of individuals from boiling over and destroying society.[20] The capitalist market succeeds in transforming “envy, jealousy, resentment, rage,” and the other forces that endanger human societies into sources of profit, but it cannot escape periodic crises created by imbalances of appetite and the flagging of desire, or, more disastrously, by the onset of self-hatred when the population becomes poisoned with disgust at the spectacle into which it has made itself. [21] The strategy that capitalism adopts toward the debts it accumulates and the social crises it sets in motion can only be one of postponement, but the longer it puts off the day of reckoning, the more devastating this reckoning will be when it finally arrives.[22]

In The Cabin in the Woods, this strategy of postponement is shown arriving at its inglorious demise. Desire can no longer be sustained, in spite of the brutal fates to which the adults are willing to abandon their children. Like other varieties of the katechon, institutions which employ measured doses of force and fraud to stem the tide of chaos that would otherwise sweep away the possibility of commodious living, the capitalist market serves to distract human beings from the dark truths regarding their conditions of life, postponing in effect their confrontation with the violent foundations of social existence. Girard frames the exposure of this elemental violence as an apocalyptic encounter: the individual, upon being confronted with the violence that founds the community – and continues to contribute to its well-being – may shrink from the implications of this disclosure and double down on his or her defense of sacrificial practices, a path which Girard on numerous occasions emphasizes will lead to global destruction.[23] The other choice at this moment of cataclysmic danger is to renounce violence in manner that Girard associates with the Gospels. The endings of such films as The Cabin in the Woods and Melancholia imply that Girard’s theory must make room for a third possible response to the revelation of foundational violence alongside the reactive defense of sacrifice and the renunciation of violence: impotent self-hatred.

It is difficult to imagine that this third response would not be far more common than the other two, as it belongs to those who have become convinced of the pointlessness of all communal purposes and who lack the will and inclination to commit themselves to a spiritual discipline.[24] In other words, it is the response proper to passive nihilism. After being deprived of the distractions afforded by an expanding capitalist market, such individuals are henceforth delivered over insignificant and helpless to an evil that strikes them as pervasive and omnipotent. They cannot find a way to integrate this knowledge into a historical narrative, whether Hegelian or realist, or a spiritual framework, such as the Augustinian doctrine of the fallenness of humanity. They are thus plunged into guilt at having been the beneficiary of cruelties and injustices while being unable to take consolation from the virtues and struggles of the past. Thus, far from imagining that they can take meaningful action on behalf of victims undergoing persecution and oppression, they appease at most their guilt by consenting to piecemeal measures that are likely to worsen strife and escalate conflicts but do not at the outset appear to erode their standard of living. The revelation, moreover, that domination is the way of humankind leads them not to renounce domination altogether but to maximize the petty dominations, sexual or economic, that they believe will never rise to the level of a communal or political purpose. Such individuals end up doing what the founding myths sought to prevent men and women from doing, which, in the words of Manent, is to “stumble interminably over the scandal of their origin.”[25]

This “stumbling” may take men and women back to the cruelty of their origins, but for all the turmoil and despair it stirs up in them, it does not serve to deepen their sense of historical identity. They are not led for the most part to wonder about how previous generations might have dealt with such knowledge, and why it would not have triggered in them the same response of overpowering horror. The monsters of the contemporary imagination cause them to revert directly to cannibalism without experiencing an interval of mere barbarism. The horror they evoke reflects our collective decision to feed on ourselves. For the immobilization of perspective is a consequence of the pact that the totalitarian individualist has made with himself or herself to salvage his or her pride from humiliation, which Gardner calls the “definingly democratic passion,” the “sense of nothingness experienced in self-comparison to others.”[26] It is to defend his or her pride as the final redoubt of a brittle and precarious identity, rather than to embrace a spiritual discipline based on compassion for the other, that the therapeutic individual heeds the Girardian commandment not to copy the desires of the other.


[1] René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), p. 137.

[2] René Girard, Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoît Chantre, trans. Mary Baker (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2010), p. 198.

[3] René Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, trans. Stephen Bann (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987), p. 136.

[4] René Girard, Pierpaolo Antonello and João Cezar de Castro Rocha, Evolution and Conversion: Dialogues on the Origins of Culture (London: Continuum, 2007), p. 251.

[5] René Girard, Anorexia and Mimetic Desire, trans. Mark Anspach (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2013), p. 36.

[6] Carol Clover, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 36.

[7] Gerry Canavan, “’We Are the Walking Dead’: Race, Time, and Survival in Zombie Narrative,” Extrapolation 51.3 (Fall 2010): 444.

[8] Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 239.

[9] René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), p. 127.

[10] John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Animals (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), p. 163.

[11] Ibid., p. 160.

[12] René Girard, Battling to the End, pp. 42, 13.

[13] Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism, trans. Chris Turner (Verso: London, 2003), p. 98.

[14] Ibid., pp. 88-89.

[15] Ibid., pp. 102-103.

[16] Ibid., pp. 97-98.

[17] Ibid., p. 100.

[18] Meic Pearse, Why the Rest Hates the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), p. 51.

[19] Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2006), p. 15.

[20] Stephen L. Gardner, “Democracy’s Debt: Capitalism and Cultural Revolution,” in Debt: Ethics, the Environment, and the Economy, ed. Peter Y. Paik and Merry Wiesner-Hanks (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), p. 95.

[21] Ibid., p. 109.

[22] Ibid., p. 95.

[23] See for example Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, pp. 180 and 251, Battling to the End, p. 103, Evolution and Conversion, p. 237.

[24] Stephen L. Gardner, “The Eros and Ambitions of Psychological Man,” in Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2006), pp. 232-233.

[25] Pierre Manent, “La leçon de Ténèbres de René Girard,” Commentaire 5.19 (Autumn 1982): 462. Translation mine.

[26] Stephen L. Gardner, “Democracy’s Debt,” p. 96.

Your Dreams May Vary from Those of the Employees of the Globex Corporation and Its Shareholders and Subsidiaries

The strongest traces of historical memory, as well as the manner in which these embers of the past are extinguished, can be found when one compares the dreams of successive generations.  What one aspires to after all is shaped by the beliefs and expectations of those who came before us, and the reality of how one lives up to or fails to live up to those aspirations is what one bequeaths to the next generation.  This question is particularly interesting to consider when one explores discusses generations that are divided by some kind of cataclysmic break, such as war or revolution, as borne out by a passage from Tocqueville’s Democracy in America:

“… one must remember well that people who destroy an aristocracy have lived under its laws; they have seen its splendors and they have allowed themselves, without knowing it, to be pervaded with the sentiments and ideas that it had conceived.  Therefore, at the moment when an aristocracy is dissolved, its spirit still drifts over the mass, and its instincts are preserved long after it has been defeated.”

An earlier passage backs up this point when Tocqueville refers to how the French, even with all the turbulence and disruption caused by the revolution, found the courage and fortitude to fight off the united militaries of the European monarchies during the War of the First Coalition. But how long is it before the aristocratic spirit – and the pursuit of glory it inspires – dissipates and dreams of battlefield renown become viewed as a primitive and atavistic yearning, or the desire to create a work of art for the ages appears as quixotic as tilting at a windmill?  The novels of Stendhal and Flaubert provide an interesting point of comparison for how drastically dreams and ambitions can contract from one generation to the next.

The Red and the Black is set during the Bourbon Restoration (1814-1830), which brought the Bourbon dynasty back on the throne after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo and his exile to St. Helena.  Its protagonist, Julien Sorel, is the son of a carpenter in the provinces.  But he is obsessed with visions of Napoleonic glory and dreams of achieving fame in battle.  His favorite reading is The Bulletins of the Grand Army, which reported on the actions of Napoleon’s forces and their enemies. Although he never fights in a single battle, Julien continually turns to military metaphors (conquest, siege, feint) when reflecting on his ambitions and the obstacles he encounters in fulfilling them.  Although Julien wins a prized commission in the army from his future father-in-law, the shrewd and perspicacious Marquis de la Mole, as Allan Bloom notes, the novel portrays Julien as a bedroom warrior, defying injury and death to sneak around the houses of his lovers, rather than braving enemy fire as an officer of the hussars.

Sentimental Education takes place in the years leading up to and following the revolution of 1848.  The protagonist, Frédéric Moreau, is young enough to be the son of Julien Sorel.  But the differences between the two young men are dramatic.  Where Julien is passionate, ambitious, and driven, never taking his eyes off his visions of glory or acting (or even thinking) in a manner contrary to his passions, Moreau is something of a schemer and dilettante.  In the event that his passions run up against obstacles, he makes back-up plans, which also come to grief because of his inability to commit himself.  When he finds himself rebuffed by Mme. Arnoux, the object of his passion, he initiates a relationship with the prostitute Rosannette.  But the life he has with her provides no outlet for his ambition, so he becomes the lover of the cold and unscrupulous Mme. Dambreuse, who has a wealthy husband and whose support he hopes will catapult him to a position of fame and prestige.  His ventures in politics prove just as fruitless and abortive.  Attempting to gauge public opinion during a period of erratic political shifts, he gives speeches in which he attacks the rich and terrifies his wealthy sponsor.  When Moreau presents himself as an earnest republican, voicing his support for a speech that calls for the state to seize the banks, abolish legacies, and create a fund for workers, the person giving the speech blasts him for having refused to fund a democratic newspaper in the past.  The distracted and desultory nature of his personality, moreover, makes its impact felt on the level of narrative construction, which appears increasingly fractured, incomplete, and unresolved.

One of key differences between the two novels is that Moreau does not ever compare himself to historical models, whereas Julien is highly conscious of how the heroes he admires would look upon his actions.  It is not only the image of Bonaparte that has evaporated by the time Moreau arrives in Paris from the provinces, but also that historical consciousness as such, which would have served as a vessel for the feelings, values, and thoughts of the old aristocracy, has largely dissipated.  As René Girard puts it,

“Julien Sorel is followed by a whole crowd of young men who come, like him, to ‘conquer’ the capital.  They are less talented but more greedy.  Chances of success are not wanting but everybody wants the most ‘conspicuous’ position, and the front row can never be stretched far since it owes its position purely to the inevitably limited attention of the crowd.  The number of those who are called increases constantly but the number of the elect does not.  Flaubert’s ambitious man never attains the object of his desires.  He knows neither the real misery nor the real despair caused by possession and disillusionment.  He is doomed to bitterness, malice, and petty rivalries.  Flaubert’s novel confirms Stendhal’s dire predictions on the future of the bourgeois” (Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, 136).

As it stands, what Julien achieves in his short life far outweighs what Moreau accomplishes in his much longer one.  Julien, after many hardships, wins the hand of the proud Mathilde de la Mole and a landed title, which he then hurls away to return to his hometown to shoot his former lover, Mme. de Rênal.  In prison, Julien rediscovers his love for Mme. de Rênal and, as Girard has argued, arrives at a full understanding of his life and the lives of others.  Even execution does not appear to be a terrible fate: “Death did not seem to him, in and of itself, horrible.  His whole life had been nothing but a long preparation for misfortunes, and he had made sure never to neglect that which passes for the greatest of them all” (475).  At the end of Sentimental Education, by contrast, Moreau also reunites with his true love, but then sends her on her way.  Experience has worn out his ambitions and drained his hopes, rendering him apathetic.  When he sees Mme. Arnoux, the problem of having to get rid of her later on, after sleeping with her, extinguishes the feeble remnants of his passion.

One of the key causes of the discrepancy between their levels of passion, vitality, and freedom, I think lies in their dreams.  Julien has Napoleon and his Marshals towering over him.  While he does not match their feats on the battlefield, their unparalleled example serves as a source of strength for his meteoric rise from the provinces to the exclusive circle of the Marquis de la Mole.  Moreau has no such figures to spur him on, and while it is common in our age to explain his failures according to a lack of role models rather than to a deficiency of character, it is clear that the Moreau has grown up in a very different age.  Whereas Sorel and his kin were social climbers dreaming of military glory, Moreau and his generation have as their “ideals” the social climbers themselves.  They do not mistake dreams for reality, rather they fail to understand that the reality rests on a dream, and is nourished by the dream.

Thinking about the rapid rise of South Korea from dire poverty of the postwar years to the wealth and affluence of the present brings me back to the works of these French novelists.  I wonder whether we will see a similar dynamic playing out in the coming years.  The generation that built the South Korean economy and won its freedom from military dictatorship has been called Korea’s “greatest generation.”  But what does the future hold for their children?  Will they become the Frédéric Moreaus to the elder generation’s Julien Sorels?  I think in times of hardship and poverty, many Korean people found in themselves the determination and strength of purpose to overcome their circumstances and build a modern industrial economy.  Of course, some failed, but many more reached deep within themselves to accomplish a goal that must have appeared impossibly remote a few decades ago.  But when people have choices, and grow up in conditions of comfort, a large number of them, larger than those who did not survive the transition, fail or fall short in the occupations they’ve chosen.  Necessity strengthens the will and fixes the mind, while choice weakens the will and distracts the mind, because failure becomes an option.  This shift is perhaps no more than the movement of a historical cycle, and perhaps it is too risky to act pre-emptively to forestall changes that are probably inevitable.  But one does have the obligation to speak before the thought itself is swept up into oblivion, when something otherwise can exist at least in the mind. 

Baudrillard on Domination and Immortality

The postmodern age is defined by the disintegration of symbolic efficacy, a condition characterized by the weakening of social norms, the withering of social bonds, and the inability of human beings to undertake and complete social mandates, such as large-scale political projects.  While many have attributed the breakdown of belief in collective structures and institutions, as well as in the actions that create and maintain them, to the collapse of state socialism, Jean Baudrillard in Symbolic Exchange and Death instead probes the transformations on the level of the symbolic that have given rise to the unprecedented social reality of the affluent society.  In this work, Baudrillard thinks through with thorough-going rigor the defining features of post-industrial society and produces not only an important work of post-structuralist theory but also an indispensable contribution to Christian theology.

Here are some of the main insights of this work:

1. Power consists not of the capacity to put another to death, but rather of the privilege of allowing the other to live (40).  What the master denies the slave is not the right to live, but rather the right to die.  Marx, in Baudrillard’s view, had it backwards.  What the master “confiscates” from the slave is his death, while retaining exclusively for himself the right to risk his life: “Whoever works has not been put to death, he is refused this honour” (39).  For the irrefutable mark of the superiority of the master is his readiness to give up his life to die a glorious and heroic death.  Labor is accordingly revealed as the enslavement to a “non-deferred death,” whereby the reality of domination is secured by the denial of exchange: “If, through labour, the exploited attempts to give his life to the exploiter, the latter wards off this restitution by means of wages” (41).  Domination hinges on this basic asymmetrical relation, in which the master guards the unilateral nature of the gift of death – in other words, he refuses by means of the wage the death that the slave might give him by ceasing to labor and by attempting to become himself a master.

2. The breakdown of symbolic efficacy is bound up with the loss of immortality as a social and cultural value.  The problem for us is that the “dead cease to exist,” that is to say, we have “thrown” them out of “symbolic circulation” (126).  The liquidation of tradition consists of the “obliteration” of the dead, so that they no longer exert any influence on our day-to-day doings.  G. K. Chesterton once defined tradition as the “extension of the franchise” to “our ancestors,” in order to prevent the despotism of the “small and arrogant oligarchy” of those whose sole claim to rule rests on the mere fact that they happen to be alive and breathing (Orthodoxy).  But today, “it is not normal to be dead, and this is new.”  Our society has become a tyranny of the living, in which dead are banished from the symbolic positions they held in previous societies as objects of reverence, scorn, admiration, fear, emulation, and dread.  Indeed, it is our symbolic exchange with the dead that produces distinct human types, as it is the limitation of death that solidifies one into a character.  The cult of limitless choice in late democratic capitalism on the other hand stifles the emergence of distinct types, producing instead the hesitant and unsettled personality that is always anxious to withhold himself for the sake of keeping all his options open.  The aim of a society that is sealed up in its present can only be a pacified and repressive “socialisation,” and cannot raise its concerns beyond the short-term survivals of its distractions.

3. The pleasure of poetry arises from the fact that poetry recreates the form of symbolic gift-exchange enjoyed by primitive societies.  Whereas our economic system is based on endless accumulation and thus on endless waste, in a good poem, every meaning is “consumed in a rigorous reciprocity” and every word finds its “corresponding term” (200).  Baudrillard argues that poetry is not merely the commemoration of the god or hero, but the very return of the god or hero to his death, and thus constitutes the playing out of his death, which is reenacted in the ritual of sacrifice.  For we moderns are “naïve” to believe that “savages” tremble in superstitious fear of their gods.  Rather, their rites enact their “ambivalence” toward their deities, “perhaps they only ever roused them in order to put them to death” (209).

Texts cited:

Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant.  London: Sage, 1993.

G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy.  http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/130/pg130.html.

Pierre Manent’s Critique of René Girard

From “René Girard’s Lesson of Shadows” by Pierre Manent

While preparing a talk for the upcoming meeting of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion, which is dedicated to the study of the ideas of René Girard, I translated the final paragraphs of Manent’s article on Girard.  It was published in Commentaire Vol. 5, No. 19 (Autumn 1982), pp. 457-463.

[...]

But more than that of Marx, Freud, or Nietzsche, the theory of Girard attaches itself to that of the greatest master of suspicion: Machiavelli.  Machiavelli also affirms that the foundation and preservation of cities are essentially violent, and that men live out continually the beneficial effects of this violence which they are not willing to look in the face.  But Machiavelli himself knows what he says: if that which we call humanity is founded on violence, then it is necessary to maintain the active power of violence and prevent men from falling under the influence of a misguided non-violence – that of Christianity – which tends to destroy the very conditions of its humanity.

For Machiavelli, the cultural differences in the interior of the cities – and first the difference between virtue and vice, between good and evil – differences which he does not contest as such but admits are conditioned by, and subordinated to, an amoral violence which circumscribes the space – the city, precisely – in which moral differences can have a meaning.  The question is the following: does the Machiavellian gesture, which places before the eyes of men the role of violence in the constitution of the human world, reveal a truth that their hypocrisy or their blindness keeps buried?  Or, to the contrary, does the scandalous revelation of Machiavelli blind men about themselves far more gravely than does their hypocrisy?  Do men not have good reasons to “stem” the violence?  In fact, their hypocrisy is founded on this: they sense obscurely that the end of social life is irreducible to its violent origin; the sacralization of the origin, which effaces or transfigures the violent aspects of this origin, is the expression of this intuition.  The founding myths are more clever than realist science.  The mythic transfiguration of the foundation guarantees that, in the pursuit of their end, the citizens do not stumble interminably over the scandal of their origin.  The origins of any city cannot be absolutely justified in conscience; it is for this very reason that men have had to hide from themselves this origin if they are to live according to their conscience.  That this conscience is inseparable from a certain “false consciousness” which is a “good conscience” indicates only that the realization of the humanity of man in the social world is subject to constraints and limitations, but not that it is radically dishonest, or mystified, or alienated.  The scandal of Machiavelli which sets the limits of the city – the constraints which weigh on the birth of the city – the nature of the city blinds men to their proper nature far more seriously than does mythic hypocrisy.

The Machiavellian path is made possible by the Christian revelation which desacralizes the human city; it desacralizes it, not in revealing that it is essentially violence, but in announcing another city in the composition of which violence has no place at all.  The Christian revelation announces a more total accomplishment of the human, incomparably, than that which is possible in the bounds of nature.  Grace does not destroy nature.  Assuredly, earthly cities being necessarily bound to a certain violence, both foundational and preservative, the Christian revelation tends to underscore the illegitimacy of all earthly cities.  And to reconquer the legitimacy of terrestrial cities, Machiavelli must affirm that the nature of cities is essentially violent.  Thus he turns Christian revelation against itself in unveiling that it is against nature.  Machiavelli reinterprets political life as violence in reinterpreting the Christian revelation as essentially non-violent, thus as essentially fallacious, thus as productive of a violence worse than “natural” violence (cf. what Machiavelli calls the “pious cruelty” of Ferdinand of Aragon, The Prince, XXI).

Girard abides strictly within the terms of Machiavellianism.  To put it simply, he gives a positive sign where Machiavelli gave a negative one, and vice-versa.  But this reversal is absurd.  If the political nature of man is violence or founded on violence, then the non-violence of Christianity is what Machiavelli calls violence against nature, the violence of the second degree, or “pious cruelty.”  If human culture is founded essentially on violence, then Christianity cannot bring anything else other than the destruction of humanity under the fallacious appearance of non-violence.

Christianity According to René Girard: The Lesson of Shadows 

The Christianity of René Girard is a strange revelation.  It reveals to men not their supernatural destination, but the truth of their nature or their “culture.”  It is a sort of Interdisciplinary Super-Institute of Social Sciences.  It tells them what they can know without Revelation.  The proof: Girard, who at least does not pretend to any supernatural revelation, knows what Christianity is better than generations of believers, theologians, and saints who have followed the faith for two millennia.  At the same time, Christianity reveals to men that their nature is essentially evil, because essentially violent.  The revelation reveals that creation is evil.  But this creation is “evil” not on account of sin but simply because it is violent: men only become men by means of sacrificial violence.  The properly Christian consideration of sin can give way to the “scientific” point of view formulated perfectly by Hobbes: “The desires, and other passions of man, are in themselves no sin.”  Reducing sin to violence, making violence the principle of the humanization of man, Girard makes sin into a principle that does not index the fallenness of humanity.  An innocent and powerless God reveals to men that they are sinners without being guilty of sin, hence they are not sinners at all in the sense that part of their being partakes of sin.  It is a manichaeism without good or evil, a manichaeism equipped with the “axiological neutrality” of the human sciences.  “Christianity” reveals to men the shadows which surround them, and that the “light of nature” of which they avail themselves is founded on the shadows of violence.  The light of grace serves only to humiliate the weak glimmers of nature.  Grace destroys nature.  Machiavelli’s satire against Christianity becomes the truth of Christianity by the ministry of a “theory of culture.”

The Florentine believed himself to have humiliated Christianity irretrievably.  He was mistaken: in its humiliated humility, a perverted Christianity finds a motif of elevation, of an elevation not at all religious, to be sure, but “scientific.”  One is never wicked enough: when the “humble” have no more plays to offer, they can still produce a theory.

False in its own genre as a theory of culture, false in its own class as a work of demystification, false in what is proper to it as an interpretation of Christianity, the theory of Girard is also as false as a theory could be.

The Scandal of Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder

The tunnel into which the suspect disappears.

The tunnel into which the suspect disappears.

There is for me always something elusive about the films of Bong Joon-ho.  They are well-crafted, but do not draw attention to their virtuosity.  They immerse the viewer in a lively and multifarious milieu, but so much so that it is easy for the viewer to take for granted the sophisticated nature of his visual compositions.  Bong makes films that improve with each viewing, which is high praise indeed but also the feature of an arduous task, because it is only with repeated viewings that the subtleties of his style, as well as the complex manner in which he develops his themes, come more fully into notice.  Bong’s form of understatement rewards repetition and rewinding.

Memories of Murder (2003) is based on a real-life series of killings of women that took place in a mostly rural part of Gyeonggi province between 1986 and 1991.  Known as the Hwaseong serial murders, the crimes that took the lives of ten women aged between 14 and 71 remain unsolved to this day.  The first-known case of serial murder in South Korea took place against the backdrop of radical social and political transformation, as it was in 1987 that massive demonstrations forced the military regime to hold free elections, and in 1988 the Seoul Olympics announced the successful modernization of South Korea and heralded its arrival to the international stage as an industrial economy.  Bong’s film is not specifically “about” these upheavals and changes, nor does it indulge in nostalgic yearnings for a simpler time.  But Memories of Murder, in patiently and meticulously depicting the conflicts, habits, and fears of a society on the very edge of dramatic transformations, creates a haunting and wholly convincing figure of social change in the form of a perpetrator who is never brought to justice.  What is most surprising about the film is not the lack of closure that stuns and haunts the viewer and detectives alike, but the unexpected scale of its ambitions.  Memories of Murder, while our eyes are elsewhere as it were, succeeds in capturing the turning-point of modern South Korean history and binding it to the most unexpected and the most dreadful of modern human types, the serial murderer.

In her article on Bong’s films, Christina Klein notes that Memories of Murder uses a familiar narrative convention for Hollywood crime thrillers, in which the investigation of a “surface crime” makes visible a “deep crime,” a “pervasive wrongdoing that lies beneath the surface of everyday life” (Klein, 881).  The effort by the local detective Park and an investigator sent from Seoul, detective Seo, to solve the murders brings to light the everyday violence and oppression inflicted on the Korean people by the military dictatorship of Chun Doo Hwan.  Park and his assistant Cho, carry out brutal interrogations of suspects, planting evidence and torturing two of them to the point where both are ready to make false confessions of their guilt.  Cho is also seen taking part in a crackdown of student protesters, dragging a female student by the hair out of the crowd to kick her before having her taken away.  But the crude methods of the police are more than matched in their destructive impact by the military government in its neglect for the safety of its citizens.  On a night on which the detectives receive information that a murder will take place, no soldiers are available to man checkpoints and stake-outs across the town, as they have been called up to crush a demonstration in a nearby city.  Because the police do not receive help, the murderer gets away with another crime.  Shots of power blackouts and defense drills at a junior high school also underscore the burdensome restrictions imposed by the military government on everyday life.

The “deep crime” film, in exposing the injustices that structure social life and go both unchallenged and often unnoticed, can take on mythic resonances.  Perhaps the most notable example of a film in which the “realism” of the police investigation unveils and is overwhelmed by the “mythic” nature of the crime is Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974).  Screenwriter Robert Towne stated that the film illustrates the idea that crimes that are too big to punish instead become celebrated as monumental achievements.  The investigation of the murder of the water commissioner by the disreputable private detective Jake Gittes comes up against a conspiracy headed by the wealthiest men of Los Angeles to drive farmers off their properties and incorporate their land into the city in order to gain access to its reservoirs.  The rise of a great city is made possible by murder, extortion, and theft on a grand scale, all of which go unpunished.  As with Thebes and Rome, violence and crime lay the foundation for a fearful and glorious destiny.  Chinatown closes with the triumph of its antagonist, a primal father figure who not only succeeds in multiplying his already vast fortune, but gets away with rape and incest as well.

But another type of film about the foundations of society, or the establishment of a new society, focuses on the figure of what Fredric Jameson calls the vanishing mediator.  This film portrays the rise of civilization through the selfless sacrifice of a noble hero who makes possible a social order in which he himself will no longer be needed.  But the selflessness of the hero proves to be excessive, as he is forced to give up not only his personal happiness in bringing about a peaceful world, but is also denied public recognition for his deed.  I am thinking here primarily of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), in which the frontiersman Tom Doniphon (played by John Wayne), kills the eponymous gunslinger, enabling Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) to bring order and rule of law to a lawless town, where individuals settled differences with force.  But circumstances result in Stoddard being publicly acclaimed as the hero who personally vanquished the cruel and violent outlaw who embodies the forces of disorder.  Doniphon chooses not to reveal the truth about the killing, and even gives up the woman he loves so that she can marry Stoddard, and dies in obscurity, a broken and forgotten man.  Although Stoddard is a courageous and intelligent character, a sort of Moses bearing the tablets of the law to an uncivilized land, nevertheless Ford portrays him as the pawn of forces beyond his control, the forces which domesticate the violent freedom of the uncivilized Old West in order to allow those people to flourish whose concerns are mundane and materialistic.  Indeed, the demise of authentic liberty in a commercial society is conveyed by the name of Doniphon’s black farmhand, Pompey.  Pompey was of course one of the last defenders of the Roman Republic, ultimately defeated by Julius Caesar.  Stoddard’s first name, on the other hand, serves as an allusion to Caesar himself, who, when kidnapped by pirates at a young age, forced them to raise the ransom they had set on him.

Deep crime and the vanishing mediator: Bong’s film contains both, but give them an unexpected twist.  While Memories of Murder presents a scathing depiction of everyday life under an authoritarian regime, the serial murders, while they take advantage of the conflicts wracking South Korea (the detectives at one point are prevented from saving the life of a witness because they are attacked by enraged students), nevertheless open the way to the future.  It marks the beginning of the future not only because the suspect gets away from the police at the end, but also because serial murder is the paradigmatic crime of modern industrial society.  What is most shocking about serial murder is the apparent absence of any purpose, other than the inhuman and predatory enjoyment of killing. In traditional societies, violence is typically regarded as a means to an end.  Serial murder is an extreme manifestation of the social purposelessness made possible by the modern industrial economy.  The serial killer is normally inconspicuous, blending in so well with his environment that people are often taken by surprise whenever one of their acquaintances is found to have committed grisly and horrifying crimes.

Without explicitly stating its ambitions, Bong’s film is a profound exploration of the transformation of South Korean society from military dictatorship to a liberal democracy and affluent consumer society.  The scandal of the film, however, is the fact that it does not focus on figures that would be considered the agents and representatives of these dramatic political changes: the martyred labor activist, the radical student protester, or the penitent police officer.  Rather, Memories of Murder introduces the figure of the vanishing perpetrator, who may not even appear physically in the film with the exception of a single point of view shot in which he chooses his victim, as the bearer of historical transition.  And yet this innovation points to a grim and inexorable truth: we cannot be certain that we have entered a new society until we have something genuinely new to fear.  No longer will the strongest object of social fear be the secret policemen dragging away citizens to torture and humiliate in government dungeons.  What will cause dread in people in the new liberal, urbanized society will be the unknowability of one’s neighbor, the anxiety that his appetites might be limitless and his desires unappeasable.

Yearning for the past, but without nostalgia.

Yearning for the past, but without nostalgia.

The lack of closure in the film may mirror the lack of reconciliation and harmony in South Korean society, especially about its past, yet the crimes of the vanishing perpetrator haunts us in a different way than the crimes of the founders.  For Bong, the unsolved crime provides a more powerful mode of commemoration than the unpunished crime of the founders.  It occupies the gap between past and present that memory, always vainly, strives to overcome.  It makes the protagonist yearn for the past, but without nostalgia.

Texts cited:

Christina Klein, “Why American Studies Needs to Think about Korean Cinema, or, Transnational Genres in the Films of Bong Joon-ho,” American Quarterly 60.4 (December 2008), 871-898.

Fredric Jameson, “The Vanishing Mediator, or Max Weber as Storyteller,” Ideologies of Theory, Volume 2: Essays 1971-1986 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988).

Review: Korean American Evangelicals

Korean Americans, along with Asian Americans, voted overwhelmingly for Obama this past election. KA voters have in the past leaned toward the GOP, but Elaine Howard Ecklund’s important book, Korean American Evangelicals, provides a vital explanation for this shift.

Korean American Evangelicals: New Models for Civic Life by Elaine Howard Ecklund, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006, viii+211p.

Elaine Howard Ecklund’s study of Korean American evangelicals represents a significant contribution to the scholarship on ethnicity and religion in the United States.  Based on interviews and surveys carried out at two churches in a small city on the east coast, Ecklund’s findings about the religious commitments of second-generation Korean Americans are certain to take many readers by surprise.

Evangelical Protestantism has achieved astonishing success in South Korea over the past century, while Korean Americans have become recognized in the United States as one of the most successful immigrant groups.  The church has been a center of social life and a provider of vital services for the first generation of Korean immigrants, but what has it meant for the second generation, who have grown up in the United States and have had to contend with expectations from their parents that conflict with the values of mainstream American society?  How does the practice of religion change as Korean Americans become more integrated into American ways?

The answers that Ecklund gives are quite fascinating.  She makes the vital point, easily forgotten in the age of identity politics, that religion can be a means of transcending one’s ethnic identity and one’s cultural roots.  Moreover, newcomers to a diverse society can act in ways to build bridges between groups that did not exist before.  Indeed, the spiritual tendencies that she sees as becoming dominant among second-generation Korean Americans create a sense of cohesion among them, even as they distance themselves from their elders and become more open to influences from American society.  But Ecklund emphasizes that religion for Korean Americans leads them to become critical of mainstream society as well, so that they create instead a new, third space between the culture of their parents and the dominant culture of white America.

The two churches that are the focus of Ecklund’s study are given the names “Grace” and “Manna.”  The congregation of Grace is made up of second-generation Korean Americans, while Manna is a multiethnic church with a significant number of Korean American members.  Grace grew out of the English language ministry of a first-generation church that invited a second-generation Korean American seminary student to organize a separate service for young people.  Manna, by contrast, is a multiethnic church founded by the merging of a Chinese American congregation and a Korean American congregation.  The membership of Manna includes a wide range of Asian Americans —  Cambodians, Indians, Vietnamese, and Filipino in addition to Koreans and Chinese, but a quarter of the church is made up of whites, blacks, and Latinos.  The membership of both churches is composed primarily of young professionals and post-secondary students.

While Grace serves a predominantly Korean American congregation, Manna has made the deliberate choice to become a multiethnic congregation.  Ecklund notes that this choice came about not from demographic changes or from a shift in denominational priorities.  Rather, the pastors leading the merged congregations decided that building a multiethnic church was a “calling from God” (p. 41).  Ecklund argues that multiethnic congregations like Manna enable their members to “negotiate” multiple and malleable identities” and “connect an appreciation of ethnic diversity to religious morality” (p. 143).  The members of Manna church uphold diversity and inclusion as key values of Christianity, leading them to criticize and oppose discrimination and exclusion in American society at large.  The goal of many second-generation Korean American evangelicals is not to assimilate into the dominant white culture, nor is it to retreat into their own heritage either.  Rather, what their faith enables them to do is to maintain a critical distance from the hegemonic mainstream while overcoming the limitations of a narrow ethnic perspective.  Such a possibility often goes overlooked the standard academic accounts of ethnic or racial identity formation, and Ecklund provides a much-needed corrective to the narrow understanding of identity politics that still prevails in many scholarly circles.

Ecklund’s study opens up a dynamic perspective on Korean American life.  Religion brings second-generation Korean Americans into close contact with the members of other ethnic and racial groups, including the white majority.  Through the civic engagement encouraged by the churches, Korean Americans, in Ecklund’s view, will take on an important role in building bridges between evangelicals of all backgrounds.  Her study of Grace church also illuminates the divides that have arisen between first and second generation Korean Americans.  The second-generation Korean Americans at Grace take issue with what they see as the tendency of the older generation to view the church in culturally narrow terms.  Instead, they seek to distinguish themselves from their elders by moving more strongly in the direction of a purer Christianity, one that is less conditioned by cultural factors.  Also, the second-generation Korean Americans in her study, although most of them fit the image of the affluent and successful model minority, increasingly take the view that wealth is not earned but is a blessing from God.  The members of Grace church and other congregations thereby challenge the ideals of material success that have played such a strong role in the lives of those who emigrated from Korea.

Korean American Evangelicals raises the point that Korean Americans in multiethnic congregations are more likely to look to African American churches as models for civic engagement, but Ecklund does not develop this intriguing point with adequate detail.  Her study observes that individualism is a crucial element in the civic engagement of Korean American evangelicals, but the opposition Ecklund draws between individualism and social justice requires more precision and clarity.  These are crucial questions which one hopes she and others will explore in the future.  As it stands, Korean American Evangelicals is an important work that deserves wide readership not only among specialists in Asian American culture but also among those interested in understanding the increasing prominence of religious faith, especially its potential for renewing community life, in multiethnic and pluralistic societies.

(This review appeared in the September 2011 issue of the Journal of Korean Religions).

Losing our brains to security

The recent spate of news stories about how we are growing less intelligent because we no longer have to contend with a hostile environment reminds of Belgian-born poet Henri Michaux’s description of an imaginary people, the Hacs:

“The Hacs make sure every year to raise a small number of child-martyrs, whom they subject to harsh treatment and blatant injustices, inventing alibis and deceptions and forcing them to grow up in an atmosphere of terror and mystery.

Charged with this task are hard-hearted men, brutes under the command of cruel and malicious leaders.

In this way they have formed great artists and poets, but unfortunately also assassins and especially reformers, fanatics ready to die for their causes.

If a change is made to their customs or social regime, it’s because of them. If, in spite of their small army, the Hacs have nothing to fear, again, they owe it to them. If anger streaks like lightning in their precise and lucid tongue, beside which the saccharine wisecracks of foreign writers is only so much insipid gruel, it is again because of them, these few ragged, wretched, hopeless kids.”

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