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.
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.
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).
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).
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.”
In one of the most interesting passages in Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville lays out the hard distinctions between aristocracy and democracy. In considering what separates the old order from the new, he sounds a bit like an author setting out to create a science-fiction universe, or least as a philosopher giving advice to a fiction writer about the creating coherent and credible alternate universes. Here is the section in which Tocqueville describes the defining traits of aristocratic societies:
“What are you requiring of society and its government? One must be clear about that. Do you wish to raise the human mind to a certain lofty and generous manner of viewing things of this world? Do you wish to inspire in men a kind of scorn for material possessions? Is it your desire to engender or foster deep convictions and to prepare the way for acts of deep devotion? Is your main concern to refine manners, to raise behavior, to cause the arts to blossom? Do you crave poetry, reputation, glory?
Are you intending to organize a nation so that it will exercise strength of purpose over all others? Are you giving it the aim of undertaking mighty projects and leaving an impressive mark upon history, however its efforts may turn out?
If, in your estimation, that should be the main objective of government, do not choose a democratic government because it would not steer you to that goal with any certainty” (286).
As for democracy, its merits and limitations are of an almost entirely different order:
“But, if it seems useful to you to divert man’s intellectual and moral activity upon the necessities of physical life and to use it to foster prosperity; if you think that reason is more use to men than genius; if you aim to create not heroic virtues but peaceful habits; if you prefer to witness vice rather than crime and to find fewer splendid deeds provided you have fewer transgressions; if, instead of moving through a brilliant society, you are satisfied to live in a prosperous one; if, finally, in your view, the main objective for a government is not to give the whole nation as much strength or glory as possible but to obtain for each of the individuals who make it up as much well-being as possible, while avoiding as much suffering as one can, then make social conditions equal and set up a democratic government” (286-287).
These passages are indicative of what I consider to be Tocqueville’s realism, in which he not only reflects on the respective advantages of the two forms of society, but also specifies their respective shortcomings and how these deficiencies are at the same time bound to what he finds meritorious in each system. Aristocracy is by far the more extreme arrangement: tremendous injustices side-by-side with glittering achievements, in which intense devotion, unconditional commitment, and deep piety are balanced out, as it were, by debauchery and transgression. Democracy, on the other hand, seeks to look after the good of the many, which yields a milder and more relaxed society, where virtue can be joined to happiness through good habits and reasonable and moderate aspirations. Tocqueville is clear about the trade-off involved in building a society in which the majority can enjoy well-being and prosperity: democratic culture will be far less brilliant and much more materialistic than those produced by aristocracies. The fact that aristocrats are prone to dissipation and excess also make them capable of demonstrating a “haughty scorn” for material comforts and therefore of displaying “unusual powers of endurance when ultimately deprived of them” (616).
For Tocqueville, what matters most in an aristocracy is a “lofty idea” of man it raises up for itself. It is not any artist or general but Blaise Pascal, demystifier of the superiority of the nobility by asserting its basis on convention, who for Tocqueville exemplifies the highest fulfillment of the aristocratic drive for splendor and greatness. Democratic societies, on the other hand, exist within a materialistic horizon, in which lofty ambitions and tyrannical injustices alike have become alien. In a sense, Tocqueville is saying that if one lives in a democracy, one cannot hope for more than a wide distribution of well-being. One must make peace with the reality that great and outstanding works of human genius, like the political revolutions that produce democracies, will become rare.
The value of Tocqueville’s thought for contemporary politics consists in how it may shake us free of the currently accepted constellation of designations and values that structure the oppositions between left and right, Republican and Democrat. Perhaps environmentalism, which seeks, if not to “inspire scorn” for consumer goods, at least attempts to make us more open to the idea of living with less, contains a strong aristocratic dimension, which is not surprising if we consider that it is generally the well-off who espouse environmentalism as a kind of lifestyle choice. Perhaps it makes more sense to view socialism, which entails imposing limitations on the aspirations of those seeking to increase their wealth, in certain vital respects being much closer to aristocracy than to democracy. Democracy itself is hostile to the principle of authority as such, with the consequence that democratic peoples, by their nature, cannot allow “any innovator to gain and exercise great power over the mind” (745). Whereas it is authority that allowed for the abuses of the aristocracy, its erosion under democracy is what, Tocqueville predicts, will serve to immobilize political life in democracy. It is hard not to regard Tocqueville as a prophet when surveying the current political landscape:
“It is generally believed that new societies will change shape day by day but my fear is that they will end up by being too unalterably fixed in the same institutions, the same prejudices, the same customs, with the result that the human race may stop moving forward and grind to a halt, that the mind of man may forever swing backwards and forwards without fostering new ideas, that man will wear himself out in lonely, futile triviality and that humanity will cease to progress despite its ceaseless motion” (750).
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America and Two Essays on America, trans. Gerald Bevan. New York: Penguin, 2003.
Our book group is discussing Stephen Greenblatt’s latest book The Swerve, which traces modern secularism back to the Epicurean philosophy of Lucretius. Among the chief teachings of Epicureanism are that there is no afterlife and that the most important goal of human life is the gratification of the body. It will come as no surprise to those who know me that I am an opponent of Epicureanism. But I object to it not so much on traditional Christian grounds, on the basis that it denies the immortality of the soul. Rather, I criticize Epicureanism because, in both its ancient and modern varieties, it rejects the idea that human experience has a historical dimension.
In the West, there are broadly speaking two paths to defeating the onslaught of time and overcoming the oblivion of mortality. The Christian doctrine of the immortal soul teaches that to be saved is not only to be given the blessings of an eternal life but also to have one’s mortal existence be stamped with a divine and infallible meaning by the providence of the Creator. The Homeric view, by contrast, holds that the only way for human beings to conquer time is to achieve glory and renown. The only immortality, and the only significance, comes from writing one’s name into history by means of extraordinary acts of valor.
The Homeric path was not cast aside with the triumph of Christianity over pagan antiquity, rather it was preserved by Christianity as it widened the scope of acts that could be crowned with glory: the spiritual warfare carried out by ascetic discipline and acts of extraordinary charity and renunciation, in addition to acts of military valor. This desire for glory later became ensconced in the realm of culture in the figure of the great artist, whose works, though misunderstood by his or her contemporaries, would pass the test of time and receive the renown due to them by future generations.
It is striking to me the extent to which the idea of any work having some kind of trans-temporal significance is bound up with the Christian idea of immortality. Hardly anyone declares today the need to write for future generations, or expresses with confidence, natural to earlier periods, that a certain work of art would increase in importance with the passing of time. Could it be that in losing the Christian idea of immortal soul, we lose the confidence to imagine the future, let alone a future populated by people whose beliefs and practices might be wholly different from our own? Even our term expressing the capacity to maintain significance and weight over the course of time, “trans-temporal,” is redolent of feebleness and hesitation.
Do we need a belief in an immortal soul in order to be able to view ourselves acting in history, or to trust that there are certain actions that are worthy of being commemorated (I exclude the contemporary cult of victimization, if only for the fact that it does not honors people for anything that they actually did)? It negates the view prizes the active life, that human initiative and the unfolding of human powers are noble and laudable things. Instead, we seem stuck within a never-ending and empty present, filled with self-recrimination over the past and nameless dread over a blank future.
In a way, it could be said that my criticism of modern secularism is that it is insufficiently pagan, that is to say, modern secularism of the type espoused by Greenblatt and the American liberal establishment is still Christian, all too Christian, without the sobriety and discernment that Christianity was able to provide by preserving the vital elements of pagan antiquity. It could be said that our problem is that negating Christianity does not bring us back to the vitality and lively innocence of Homer, but rather enchains us in the morbid guilt of a post-Christian world that has not killed God but merely closed off memory and sterilized passion.
I am posting a review of Apocalypse: From Antiquity to the Empire of Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009) by John Hall. It is scheduled appear in The Sociological Review later this summer.
John R. Hall’s Apocalypse: From Antiquity to the Empire of Modernity is an ambitious work that interprets major historical movements and events from the standpoint of eschatological expectation. The book performs the vital service of reminding us that the yearning for apocalyptic redemption serves both as a crucial motive for those undertaking world-transforming projects and as the medium through which persons caught up in momentous events understood their significance. Hall traces the category of the apocalyptic back to its earliest known manifestations, in the sacred texts of Zoroastrianism, and then devotes a section of his study to points of historical transition at which the narrative of apocalypse undergoes a significant mutation. In examining apocalypticism in the Middle Ages, the Reformation, the secular revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries, and finally the contemporary era of globalization, Hall reveals the stubborn persistence of the apocalyptic tropes of destruction and rebirth in the history of West. His study forcefully makes the case that the narrative of apocalypse stands solidly in the mainstream of Western civilization, and raises the question of whether it is possible to understand historical experience apart from the categories it provides.
The sections of Hall’s book that are dedicated to the Crusades and the sectarian movements of the Middle Ages will no doubt call to mind Norman Cohn’s classic study, The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957). Hall’s study builds on Cohn’s work, especially in his discussion of the Crusades, but unlike Cohn, Hall lays his emphasis on the fate of the apocalyptic within the forms of belief that gained official legitimacy within European society, rather than on its expressions on the sectarian fringes. Thus, Hall’s account of the Reformation accords greater weight to the efforts of Martin Luther and John Calvin to regiment and rationalize apocalyptic energies by channeling them into institutionalized forms acceptable to worldly rulers than on Thomas Müntzer’s dramatic and doomed attempt to create a messianic kingdom on the earth. But as Hall observes, the subjection of life to the rational discipline of work and the displacement of sacred time by the objective time of the clock and calendar do not trigger the waning of the apocalyptic and the sacred violence it incites, but rather displaces this violence into the practice of secular politics. Thus, the Jacobins are revealed to be fundamentalist zealots wielding a violence that has an indelibly “sacred” character for the sake of establishing the “quasi-religious utopia” of the republic of virtue (111). Hall’s discussion of the apocalyptic element in modern radical politics proves to be quite refreshing and salutary. He goes beyond the analysis of Soviet and Chinese communism, the religious dimensions of which have long been established by earlier scholars, to consider the exercise of sacred violence in anti-colonial struggles, including black liberation, Zionism, Palestinian resistance, as well as the Taiping rebellion and the American Indian Ghost Dance movement.
The conceptual maneuver that reveals the essentially religious character of political institutions and ideological movements which are understood to be secular is a gesture that readers of the work of Denis de Rougemont, Eric Voegelin, and John Milbank are bound to find familiar. Most academic readers will find the absence of polemic in Hall’s study to be one of its principal merits, as his thesis regarding the ubiquity of the apocalyptic in the history of West does not come weighted with the anti-liberal and anti-secular baggage that mars for many the insights of the aforementioned thinkers. In Hall’s book one does not find sweeping attacks on modernity and its cult of self-fashioning, nor calls to revive orthodox forms of Christianity, nor a defense of a platonic conception of philosophy as the only form of thought that can resist sectarian delirium. Hall’s disinterestedness and evenhandedness, as well as his attentiveness to the irreducibly heterogeneous and hybrid nature of radical politics, serve him well in tracking the manner in which the apocalyptic has infiltrated the dominant narratives of secular politics. But these virtues do not work to his advantage in confronting the crises of the global present.
Hall provides an excellent overview of the emergence of militant Islam, identifying the points of linkage between al-Qaida and the earlier generation of radical thinkers who redefined jihad for the modern, postcolonial age, Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb. Though he makes a convincing case for regarding al-Qaida’s struggle against liberal modernity as apocalyptic in its scale, Hall chooses to map this conflict in a disappointingly schematic way, as a face-off between the “Empire of Modernity” (a term borrowed from Martin Coward), with its techniques of surveillance and modes of governmentality, and apocalypse itself. The key task is for the Empire of Modernity to continue a policing strategy against apocalyptic extremists while preventing the escalation of its violence onto an apocalyptic scale, which would only work to the benefit of al-Qaida and other militant groups. Hall would update George Kennan’s theory of containment for an age of borderless religious warfare, as he singles out overreaction and excessive force on one’s own side as the leading hazard in a lengthy and uncertain struggle on multiple fronts. The only way to avoid apocalyptic calamities is to “undermine the plausibility structures of apocalypse” (197).
Hall studiously avoids falling into the trap of materialist reductionism when it comes to the religious struggles of the past, i.e. he is able to regard their partisans in the manner in which they regarded themselves, rather than exposing their clashes over doctrine as disguised battles over wealth, political and economic status, etc. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for his analysis of the contemporary crisis. Hall opposes the apocalyptic temporality of crisis and judgment with the category of diachronic time, which corresponds to the everyday continuity that fosters economic activity. The project of modernity unfolds in a diachronic conception of time, yet Hall does not explore the possibility that apocalyptic calamity might actually arrive through this mode of temporal experience. For one could argue that the very attachment to affluence among people living in capitalist democracy undermines their ability to engage in large-scale collective action, which would invariably disrupt the routines and practices making possible the pursuit and accumulation of wealth. The more their existence is immersed within the patterns of the diachronic, the more difficult it becomes for them to act collectively to avoid catastrophe.
One sees evidence of such incapacity in the way in which the US has chosen to conduct its so-called war on terror. Although the US has resorted to excessive and inhuman measures against those suspected of terrorism, such as the inmates held at Guantanamo, this brutality has coexisted with a strange half-heartedness in how the US has engaged in a struggle against an ostensibly dire enemy. Although neo-conservatives have declared the struggle against militant Islam to be no less significant that the fight against Bolshevism and fascism, the US has from the outset acquiesced to rigid economic constraints in waging war. Thus, it has not sent troops in adequate numbers to bring stability to Iraq and Afghanistan, because it is too politically costly to revive the draft or to displace, however temporarily, economic growth from its position as the highest national priority. Even the most ardent supporters of the war in Iraq never called for significant changes to life at the home front for the sake of gaining victory in a lengthy and protected conflict, even though they are quick to characterize the enemy as fanatics seeking nothing less than the total destruction of the way of life Americans hold dear. The Iraqis have suffered the devastating brunt of these unyielding limitations, as the speedy victory gave way to the disintegration of state security through inter-ethnic strife as well as a bloody insurgency, which have claimed the lives of between 106,000 to 116,000 Iraqi civilians, according to Iraqbodycount.org), or over 654,965, according to Lancet.
It is the juxtaposition between the characterization of Islamist militants as an enemy seeking to inflict catastrophic destruction and the state of consumerist inertia intensified by this enmity that constitutes the representative apocalyptic of our time. For our satiety rules out the possibility of reciprocity between enemies and delegates the duty of sustaining an untenable status quo to those who benefit from it the least. In this respect it is telling that Hall chooses a rather dated nightmare to illustrate the danger of the dissolution of the public sphere: the stifling conformity of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. It would be more fruitful to look instead to the novels of Michel Houellebecq and J. G. Ballard, who track the pathologies bred by radical individualism and consumerist satisfaction. In their narratives, apocalypse erupts from the combustion triggered by the collision of incommensurable ways of life – sex tourism and radical Islam – while a new generation of Stalins and Hitlers arise from the torpor of shopping malls and resort communities. As these novelists demonstrate, our problem is that the apocalypse will only be televised, at least until the power runs out.
John Hall, Apocalypse: From Antiquity to the Empire of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009.
What is religion in the postmodern world? Religion has been widely regarded as a source of oppressive authority, a body of outmoded superstitions that constrain the capacity of individuals to utilize their freedom and thrive in a liberal, pluralistic society. This view has been moderated in recent years, as a number of secular thinkers have credited religion as being the source of the moral values that are indispensable for the stability and well-being of liberal democracy, such as the golden rule or compassion for the poor. But I find that the predominant approach to religion taken by secular intellectuals is one of attempting to domesticate and rein in an unruly and potentially destructive force. The most urgent question for them is how to make faith, as it were, housebroken – i.e. how to harness its altruistic and humanitarian impulses for socially beneficent ends while curbing its powers elsewhere, so that it would not seek to impose constraints on individual liberty or otherwise stifle the ceaseless pursuit of novelty in consumer society.
Such a project necessarily assumes that religion can be divided between its enlightened varieties, those manifestations of spirituality that are accepting of other beliefs and take a relaxed attitude towards social mores and practices, and its strident and menacing forms, usually fundamentalist, which are bent on burdening non-believers with their oppressive values and irrational restrictions. Enlightened religion has made its peace with the modern world, and obeys the principle of “this far, and no further.” Reactionary fundamentalist religion is so unsettled by the relentless erosion of taboos in modernity that it appears ready to pay the price of economic competitiveness to restore the discarded and abandoned social and sexual norms.
On closer inspection, however, the task of making religion safe for secular democracy (as well as, one might add, capitalism) appears more daunting than one might expect, since it requires arriving at the correct balance whereby religion is strong enough to supply crucial moral intuitions (be kind to others, help the less fortunate, defer gratification) that cannot be generated by a purely secular rationality, but yet is left weak enough so that it is in no position to threaten to curb the untrammeled freedom which has come to define liberal individualism. One must contend furthermore with the concern that the “good,” pluralistic expressions of religious belief usually represent diluted forms of faith and practice. Such a spirituality, which has become so harmonized with modern life so as to become interchangeable with it, is incapable of supplying a corrective to the corrosive forces of the age and is fated to disappear with the passing of the present epoch and its values.
For Alexis de Tocqueville, it only makes sense to speak of the salutary effects of Christianity inasmuch as the religion and its values exist at a distance from the commercial preoccupations of democratic society. Democracy gives rise to a bustling society given over to commerce, in which men almost always meet others who are like themselves and in which their material success give them scant incentive to recognize and fathom the forbidding ideas and arduous experiences that were essential to the formation of their world. Only religion could preserve a dimension of otherness in a society defined by commerce and dominated by affluence.
In Tocqueville’s view, the emergence of democracy itself is a theological mystery. As such, he gives a definition of religion that can be understood as thoroughly atheistic: “When, therefore, any religion has put down deep roots in a democracy, be careful not to shake them; rather, take care to preserve them as the most valuable bequest from aristocratic times” (Democracy in America, 632-633). Like many contemporary social theorists, Tocqueville’s view of religion is oriented toward its social consequences, its social and economic utility, yet he underscores here that it is not primarily its moral or ethical dimension which is to be valued, but rather the historical consciousness it provides. Religion is what prevents the democratic and capitalist subject from being fully enclosed in the social and cultural horizon created by its activity. Religion, specifically Christianity, gives democratic men and women access to a radically different perspective that runs counter to the restless pursuit of material goods and worldly success.
What is accordingly truly other to capitalist democracy is not a vision of its possible improvements and modifications, such as socialism or communism, but rather aristocracy. Religion is an artifact of aristocratic centuries, in which hierarchy was a constant, harsh and unavoidable presence in everyday life. But what does a sociopolitical order, founded on rigid social divisions and irrational codes of privilege, have to offer than democracy does not? As Pierre Manent observes in his study of Tocqueville:
“Aristocratic society, which is founded on a false idea of freedom, on bizarre notions of honor, which particularizes men, causes them by the same token to live together and exalt the higher parts of the soul. Democratic society, which is founded on the just idea of liberty, whose notions of honor increasingly approximate universal notions of good and evil, which ‘generalize’ men, separates and weakens the higher parts of the soul. The false idea of nature elevates the nature of man and stimulates exalted achievements – in thought and politics, above all. The true idea of nature dulls the nature of man and makes him incapable of exalted enterprises that are proper to his nature – elevated thought in particular” (Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, 74, emphases mine).
Aristocratic society has hierarchy as its guiding principle, but this means that the “power of one man to govern others” extends to realms beyond considerations of political rank. The lack of egalitarianism in aristocracy has its noblest and most splendid consequences in the realm of thought. The habit in aristocracies of commanding and obeying is conducive for the realization of philosophic and artistic genius. Democratic society, by contrast, strives incessantly to suppress the awareness of inequalities and looks only to money as the only indisputable measure of distinction. Manent locates the incommensurable difference between aristocracy and democracy in the idea of influence: “Because [aristocratic societies] are extremely inegalitarian, great personal influences can make themselves felt… The social convention that recognizes great individual influences opens space in which great natural influences, owing to strictly personal talents and merits of individuals, can be exercised” (Tocqueville, 77). In aristocracies, the law of superiority means that people take it for granted that men ought to influence one another, including those who may lack the distinction of birth but who rise to exert authority by cultivating their abilities and gifts. Democracy, on the other hand, holds that no man is superior to any other, and so “tends to impose a real equality of men that it does not uphold in theory” (Tocqueville, 79). Democracy thus tends to “stultify” human nature, as democratic society is “constantly preoccupied with organizing men so that they are unconscious” of their inequalities, a necessarily “endless” task which compels individuals to “veil in themselves and ignore in another all sentiments, qualities, actions that tend to contradict this equality” (Tocqueville, 79).
While the Christian belief in the inviolable dignity of every human being is often regarded as the source of the modern concept of equality, the Christian view of the soul cannot be described as democratic. In Christianity, it is aristocracy (or monarchy) in Plato’s sense that provides the pattern for the right order of the soul, whereby the believer is called to recognize the love of God as the supreme authority that rules over his or her desires and capacities. The democratic soul in the Republic, by contrast, is defined by the absence of a single ruling power and by its insistence that all desires must be “honored on an equal basis” (561c). It could therefore hardly be called Christian at all. In Plato’s dialogue, the form of the soul corresponds to the regime that shares its name, i.e. the citizens of an aristocracy possess aristocratic souls, the citizens of an oligarchy oligarchic souls, the citizens of a democracy democratic souls, etc. For Tocqueville, the inward, spiritualized hierarchy of Christianity makes possible the coexistence of democracy with the aristocratic soul. Indeed, Tocqueville contends that it is best for a democracy to be populated by citizens who have aristocratic souls.
But an aristocratic soul that inhabits a democracy will necessarily exist in tension with this political regime. For it is the will of the human spirit to “harmonize the earth and heaven” (Tocqueville, 107). Religion accordingly serves as a force that restrains and moderates the corrosive effects of individualism and materialism, but it can do no more than hold back overwhelming powers that are bent on vanquishing it, subjugating, colonizing and manipulating it for its own indifference to higher purposes. The power of democratic society over religion sterilizes religion and deprives it of its capacity to serve as the repository of historical consciousness, as a body of ideas from which it is possible to reconstruct the perspectives and values of the aristocratic past. For Nietzsche, the nascent liberal Christianity of his time had lost sight of the “dread” and the “belief in human unworthiness” that drove Pascal, who was central influence on Tocqueville, to formulate his wager, and instead justified itself according to the “great benefit,” “enjoyment,” and “soothing effects” it offered. Such a religion, which sought its proof in “pleasure” and not “force,” was in Nietzsche’s view a “symptom of decline,” leading to an “opiate Christianity” that has “no need of that dreadful solution, ‘a God on the cross’” (Late Notebooks, 89-90).
The old saying that politics creates strange bedfellows must surely apply to the history of ideas – shifts in social values can reveal alignments and affinities between ostensible adversaries or between critics and the targets of their critiques. Thus, the more distant Christianity grows from beliefs that in the eyes of the present age are irrational, arduous, and strenuous, the better this unapologetic defender of aristocratic values can fulfill the unlikely role of the defender of an uncomfortable and troubling orthodoxy. It is instructive in this respect to look to Eric Voegelin’s commentary on Nietzsche, in which the latter emerges as a mystic of historical immanentism, for whom the union with God is replaced by union with distinct historical personalities: Schopenhauer, Wagner, Bismarck, Goethe, and perhaps most importantly, Pascal (“Nietzsche and Pascal,” 271). Nietzsche is not so much a historicist as a mystic who seeks to “transform himself into an epitome of the experiences of humanity to the point that the historically unfolding spirit becomes incarnate for its actual present in his person; his person must become the medium of transition of the spirit into the future of humanity” (“Nietzsche and Pascal,” 265). By “living through” the experiences of the past, the individual will “learn best where humanity in future should or should not go.”
Voegelin’s reservations about Nietzsche’s historical mysticism not surprisingly have to do with the possibility of misinterpretation, which is exacerbated by the thinker’s own “weakness in drawing empirical images of the actions of the immoralist” (“Nietzsche and Pascal,” 296-297). Moreover, Nietzsche’s mysticism is ultimately a defective one, because he “was incapable of the transcendental experiences” which are infused by the Christian idea of grace (“Nietzsche and Pascal,” 257). Yet, Nietzsche, in developing an array of “countersymbols” of the Christian religion, maps out in the movements of his this-worldly mysticism the “transfigured reality” of the soul once it has overcome “the world in which man lusts for life” (“Nietzsche and Pascal,” 258). The most profound apologist for Christianity, Pascal, thus emerges as the thinker he followed most closely.
Pierre Manent, Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, trans. John Waggoner. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1994.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Writings from the Late Notebooks, trans. Kate Sturge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America and Two Essays on America, trans. Gerald E. Bevan. New York: Penguin, 2003.
Eric Voegelin, “Nietzsche and Pascal,” in The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Volume 25: The History of Political Ideas, Volume VII: The New Order and the Last Orientation, ed. Jürgen Gebhardt and Thomas A. Hollweck. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999.
A Dangerous Method, directed by David Cronenberg, depicts the friendship and the eventual split between two of the intellectual giants of the twentieth century, Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung. I entered the theater feeling somewhat skeptical over how it would handle the ideas of the two men, but I was impressed by how engrossing the conversations about the psychoanalytic method actually are in the film. Yet, the film ultimately disappoints. It backs away from pursuing to its end the implicit question it raises in portraying the clash between these two momentous figures: who will define the soul of the bourgeois in the modern age?
The film focuses on the relationship first of Jung and then of Freud to a younger woman, Sabina Spielrein, who is one of Jung’s early patients. Brought to the clinic where Jung works against her will by her wealthy Russian Jewish parents, she flowers there as a patient of Jung, working through her emotional traumas to become an outstanding medical student, and then emerges as an eminent therapist in her own right. The film appears to credit her with giving Jung, who becomes her lover, the idea of the anima. Later on, her academic thesis regarding the destructive character of the sexual drive so impresses Freud that he shifts direction in his own work to theorize the death drive (in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud acknowledges his debt to Spielrein’s work in a footnote).
Jung and Freud themselves are portrayed as opposites, though not in a schematic way. Jung is played by Michael Fassbender as a nervous and passionate patrician, a volatile compound of Calvinist guilt and Teutonic intoxication. Viggo Mortensen’s Freud by contrast conveys solidity and rootedness – he is never at a loss for words and always with a sardonic riposte at the ready. Freud is utterly convinced of the truthfulness of his science but perpetually uneasy about his status as the father of an intellectual and moral revolution. On several occasions he exhibits something of a persecution complex regarding the forces hostile toward his movement, although the rise of Nazism would of course prove his fears prescient. The rational Freud objects to Jung’s research into parapsychology and psychic phenomena as dangerous to the embattled reputation of psychoanalysis as a science. He also cautions Spielrein from accepting the ideas of her erstwhile therapist and lover too readily. Freud reminds her that as Jews, they must take with a grain of salt the enthusiasms of an Aryan Protestant for whom the experience of religious and ethnic persecution fails to register within his psychic horizon. Yet, it is Freud who seems more at ease with himself and with the modern world than Jung. He is the one who has more fully embraced the realities of the industrial age and, lacking any inclination for redemptive nostalgia, has achieved a sense of harmony and balance in the midst of the cold, hard facts of a disenchanted life. The bespectacled Jung by contrast comes across as unworldly and sensitive most of the time, except when he comes up against the proprieties of Swiss Protestant society, in which case he is rapidly reduced to both philistinism and petulance.
Within the film the character of Spielrein, who is played by Keira Knightley in one of the most remarkable performances of recent years, should logically serve as the figure that mediates or achieves a synthesis between the opposing attitudes of the two men. But while she recognizes the limitations of Freud’s approach, which seeks only to help the patient resign herself to a life of ordinary misery, she never comes around in the film to formulating the equivalent defects or limitations of Jung’s thought. This lack of symmetry leads me to conclude that the film tacitly hands the victory in the intellectual standoff to Jung, as it does not locate an objection in the realm of ideas to the latter’s stance that therapy should be about more than reconciling patients to their problems, and that it ought to help them uncover their untapped potential and to discover within themselves the people they are meant to become. Indeed, the moment of triumph she experiences over Jung does not take place on the level of their ideas, but has to do with the choice of his new mistress, who, he reveals with one part embarrassment and two parts flattery, is “half-Jewish.”
Given the fact that liberal capitalist society places a premium placed on individual freedom, Jung’s ideas are certain to appear far more desirable and authoritative than those of his rival. Freudian sobriety and resignation are antithetical and run counter to the spirit of contemporary society: be the best self you can be! life is a journey! spring your inner child from detention! you are a spiritual warrior, so go out and collect some spiritual scalps! A Dangerous Method does not announce a winner in the bout quite so emphatically, but while many a viewer might greet such reticence as a form of subtlety and as the outcome of a laudable impulse to do justice to the complexity of life by keeping matters open, I find its restraint to be a critical flaw. The film fails to follow through as fully as it ought on this conflict in which the stakes are nothing short of the heart and mind of the modern individual, but this failure is nevertheless profoundly symptomatic of the deadlocks of contemporary intellectual life.
The path the film takes in cutting Jung down to size is revealing. The title cards at the end of the film tell us that Spielrein when on to become a pioneering and renowned psychotherapist in the Soviet Union, but was murdered along with her daughters by the Nazis after their home city of Rostov-on-the-Don fell to the Wehrmacht in 1941. The refutation of Jung takes place outside the boundaries of the film, in history. This point is reinforced by the last meeting between Spielrein and her former mentor, which takes place several years before the outbreak of World War One. She finds him in a state of mental and intellectual paralysis brought on by apocalyptic visions of a Europe drowning in blood.
The portrait of Jung as a prophet stunned and immobilized by his visions receives a counterpoint earlier in the film when Jung is asked by Freud to take in his troubled pupil, Otto Gross. Gross is one of the bohemian “degenerates” and “flatterers” derided by Jung who orbit around the great doctor in the coffeehouses of Vienna. But Jung is soon seduced by Gross’ sexual ruthlessness and lack of scruple – the latter expresses surprise that Jung does not sleep with his patients. For Gross, there is no other way to interpret Freud’s teaching than to release oneself from all repression. He declares to Jung that his method is to tell patients what they want to hear, that they should be free to act on their carnal desires, or to convince them that their misery stems from their adherence to outmoded restraints. Jung is supposed to be the one analyzing Gross, but the latter turns the tables on him, serving as the catalyst for Jung’s decision to break with his professional obligations and moral restraints.
It is thus Gross, and not Freud, who succeeds in outmaneuvering Jung. Indeed, during Jung’s final confrontations with Freud, the latter collapses after Jung disputes Freud’s argument that monotheism is bound up with parricide. So what then is the role of Gross, who is obviously not the “female genius” forgotten by history? Is Gross a sort of Smerdyakov, the one who puts into action, albeit in a catastrophic way, that which his half-brothers the Karamazovs discuss endlessly? Or is Gross the loyal and unscrupulous enforcer typically found standing at the right hand of almost every great prophet? Does Gross, with his message of no-repression, reflect if not the true teaching of Freud, then its inevitably vulgarized historical expression? If Spielrein is the victim of the psychic energies that psychoanalysis was not able to tame and humanize, then does Gross not embody the degraded and ultimately trivial uses to which the method will be put?
Psychoanalysis was a science devised to give meaning to the life of bourgeois man, who had come to experience as overly burdensome the faith and the virtues of his forebears. The bourgeois is the man who seeks to maximize his pleasure and to minimize his pains, to enlarge the sphere of what is permitted and to reduce as much as possible his obligations. The bourgeois values possessions, unlike the saint or criminal, both of whom recognize the essentially transient character of all things. The saint allows things to come and go, commemorating each passing moment as the manifestation of a mysterious grace. The criminal responds to the ephemeral condition of life by sucking the life out of things and casting them aside. The bourgeois man takes everything personally, whereas the saint and the criminal see their lives bounded by an impersonal force – by the dispensation granted by a sacred providence or by the delayed fulfillment of an inescapable curse. Perhaps it is too formidable of a task for any body of thought to enable a human type like the bourgeois to become well-adjusted to his predicament, for he is attached to diversions but cannot escape the anxiety that he is squandering his time and his energies. The bourgeois response to the tyranny of truth, the power which lures him away from a life of endless diversion and easy gratifications to sublime acts of destruction, has been in the years after World War II to make thought safe for the world. But moderation and sobriety themselves have a way of becoming untruthful. In the liberal capitalist world, ideas are not supposed to be dangerous. Cronenberg’s film does not rise to the challenge of exposing the decay of this principle, how it wilts before economic reversals which, though severe, are hardly the equal of calamities like war and plague which swept the world but did not shatter systems of belief. It leaves us only with a prophet who, instead of gaining discernment, is blinded by his visions of destruction.
In replying to the question of why apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic narratives have become so popular in American culture in recent years, one may seek the causes in the major events of the past ten years – the newfound sense of vulnerability caused by the attacks of 9-11, the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression, and the destruction which overtook New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But I was recently at a conference where I got into a conversation about the subject with a professor of politics, who argued that the apocalyptic mood of the culture is nevertheless not quite commensurate with actual events in the world. The US might be undergoing a diminution of geopolitical influence, but this loss of power is relative, not absolute. The US is still the most powerful and influential country in the world, even if it is less capable of projecting its power in certain regions of the globe. Indeed, the scaling down of US power is taking place largely on its own initiative — its hand is not being forced by a military disaster on the scale of the annihilation of the Athenian expedition on Sicily. While the economic crisis has disrupted the lives of millions across the globe, there is no immediate prospect of famine or the loss of other necessities in the industrialized world. A global pandemic poses a serious threat, but it remains at present one fear among many drifting through the clouds of an interconnected globe. The industrialized nations might be faced with economic and possibly political readjustments that are painful for many, but on a historical scale, these changes are quite minor beside such upheavals as the fall of the Roman empire, the coming of the Black Death, or the French revolution.
So does the glut of films, novels, and TV shows in the US dedicated to portraying the apocalyptic collapse of industrial society amount to an overreaction to our current predicaments? In my book I consider the popularity of apocalyptic narratives as a symptom of the waning of historical consciousness, by which I mean not only historical memory but also the loss of the capacity to believe the possibility of enacting change on the stage of history. This sense of helplessness turns the specter of historical change into a nightmarish prospect, something which is unwilled, an inhuman force which reveals the vanity and hopelessness of human efforts to control their fates. But accounting for the sense of disproportion between our historical and economic predicament and our culture’s response to it requires a greater sense of historical specificity. For it is the lack of historical points of reference that make American apocalyptic narratives so emotionally wrenching, while also depriving them of wit and subtlety. J. G. Ballard and Michel Houellebecq provide compelling and persuasive depictions of apocalyptic upheaval and transformation, but it is hard to imagine an American writer taking on the motifs of the inhuman with the wry, sardonic, and detached gaze they cast on collective delirium and psychopathology. Perhaps this is because American culture lacks a concept of radical evil – it is difficult for us to view atrocities, especially our own, as possessing a wholly gratuitous character. Instead, our violence proves to be inextricably embedded in a redemptive framework, serving to pave the way for a society of universal consumption, a McDonald’s where the descendents of oppressors and the oppressed may alike enjoy cheap, fattening, chemically modified food, while a smaller number among the former rake in the profits.
Both Ballard and Houellebecq, for all their fascination with the global expansion of American values, nevertheless belong to the Old World, and in Ballard’s case, that Old World also includes Asia. They write from a historical consciousness that runs more deeply than that of their American counterparts. This depth is not merely a function of quantity, in that Europeans simply have a longer history than Americans. Rather there is a significant aspect of historical experience that is missing in American culture, which I think goes a substantial distance in accounting for both the mainstream popularity and the hysterical character of our apocalyptic narratives: the experience of being conquered and dominated by a foreign power.
Almost every people, and the majority of countries, in the world have in their historical memory the experience of suffering a defeat in war that led to their being ruled by a foreign enemy. France was conquered by Nazi Germany, and before Napoleon won his great victories at Austerlitz and Jena, the lands of the German princes were turned into the slaughter-grounds of the wars of religion. The Russians, Chinese, Arabs, Koreans, and Persians were conquered by the Mongols. Asia and Africa came under the domination of the Western powers in the 19th and 20th centuries. But the more ancient a people is, the more memories it has of being subjugated by a foreign other. Even normally unconquerable England, as Simon Schama reminds us, in essence surrendered to a Dutch armada when William of Orange forced James II into exile and ascended to the throne with his wife Mary. In most instances, the loss of independence and autonomy becomes a formative aspect of national identity, serving as a decisive rallying point in the constitution of a people, as in the mythologization by Serbian nationalists of the defeat at Kosovo in 1368 or the reverence of the Vietnamese for the Trung sisters, who died as martyrs in the struggle for liberation against the Han dynasty in 42 CE. While the memory of defeat in war and conquest by the enemy is too often associated in the present with the nursing of grievances that explode in outbursts of fanatical and murderous nationalism, such an experience nevertheless grants a people a broader sense of what is possible in the realm of historical experience. Foremost among the lessons of such an experience would be the rather obvious truth that no country or people remains ascendant forever, that the process of decline is an unavoidable part of history. Power, wealth, and influence, as well as social stability and strategic initiative, are finite quantities that dissipate and vanish over time. One could furthermore add that the experience of conquest provides a powerful incentive to be conscious of how one’s behavior, and the behavior of a society, can make a country vulnerable to forces beyond one’s control. It provides a kind of hidden railing to check and constrain individual behavior, and to keep it within reasonably cautious limits.
It is said that the American dream stands as a thoroughgoing repudiation of the laws of historical thermodynamics, in its insistence that things will only get better in the future, that abundance is an unalterable norm, and thus that to place constraints on one’s material expectations and ambitions is hopelessly wrongheaded and defeatist. But in the absence of the experience of foreign conquest, which is a form of traumatic adversity that is not identical to apocalyptic collapse, there seems to be little in American culture that might provide a pivot on which to discard illusions that have become destructive and to embrace a new way of life that is better suited to the times. Such flexibility and realism, it seems, have been thrown out with the bath-water of the constraining customs and undemocratic hierarchies of the Old World. Our culture has become bereft of a middle ground between the confident possession of autonomy and the total breakdown of civilized restraints.
Susan Faludi, in an article and book, argues that the attacks of 9/11 opened an old wound in the American unconscious, the bloody war fought by the early colonists against the Wampanoag led by their Chief Metacom (more widely known as King Philip), in which the adult male Puritans were often unable to protect their women and children against the warriors of the enemy. 9/11, in her view, provoked the destructive response of reviving fantasies of omnipotence to repress the “awareness of our vulnerability.” It is my contention, by contrast, that what is formative for us in the present is a historical experience that we have never known.
The lack of this experience constrains our ability to understand history as well as to create meaningful narratives. As Simone Weil points out in her famous essay, “The Iliad: Poem of Force,” it is the ability to view war from the perspective of both the conquerors and the conquered, that makes the epic a genuine advance in ethical consciousness, unprecedented and seldom equaled by later works. What gives this insight the status of a moral breakthrough is the “extraordinary equity” that animates it – the brutalities and indignities of war are shown afflicting Greek and Trojan alike (Weil, 179). The impartiality with which the poem gazes upon the victors and the vanquished strips away the illusion that one can ever master force and exempt oneself from the fate of becoming reduced to the horrifying and inert condition of a thing. But such dispassionate lucidity, which leads one to wonder whether the author of the poem is indeed a Trojan and not a Greek, is born from the experience of defeat, the trauma of becoming oneself conquered. Weil refers to Thucydides, who recounts that the Achaeans, eighty years after the sack of Troy, were themselves were conquered and uprooted as refugees. Only a people that, having once ravaged and plundered the cities of others, was forced to endure the pillaging of their own homes and the slaughter of their loved ones, could come to acknowledge the truth of force.
The turn toward apocalypse, then, serves as a kind of groping in the dark for a lesson that other peoples have already learned. Whether such a lesson can withstand the assaults of neoliberal affluence is a topic for another post.
Simone Weil, The Simone Weil Reader, ed. George A. Panichas. Wakefield, RI: Moyer Bell, 1977.
Nuclear terrorism, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, cyberwarfare, and the depletion of resources necessary for running the industrial economy – for J. G. Ballard, missing from this list of the disasters most feared in the present would be the calamity in which there is no disaster. Millennium People, his novel of 2003, gives us a glimpse into the kind of social problems that would prevail in an affluent, high tech society that had reached the point where it had little to fear from external dangers and could take for granted its continued prosperity. That human beings might be fundamentally unsuited for such a pacific existence finds support from history as well as evolutionary biology: it is only in the late twentieth century that human beings, at least in the industrialized world, had within their grasp a way of life in which there was no need to struggle for necessities – one needed only to struggle for luxuries, and even then struggle was not always requisite either. One could also describe this situation as an impasse in which a species long inured to contending with a hostile environment and unrelenting competition from rivals, finds itself at last without any natural enemies. If human beings only truly take notice of and value what they perceive can be taken away from them, in other words, those things they understand to be under some kind of threat, what happens to their concerns and cares if all significant threats have become swept into the dustbin of history? The easiest and most immediate answer would be to invent new threats, and thereby bring about one’s servitude to new forms of necessity. For we do not find intensely meaningful those things that we create or choose, but rather those things to which we find ourselves forced to submit.
The protagonist of Millennium People, the psychiatrist David Markham, is drawn into the sects and rituals of weekend activism after a bomb on a baggage carousal at Heathrow Airport takes the life of his ex-wife Laura. The fact that he is a psychiatrist supplies a productive point of entry for examining the desires and anxieties of the highly educated professionals who dedicate their spare time to protesting an enormous range of causes: calling for the removal of nuclear waste stations, attacking travel agencies, and defending badger dens from development. Convinced that the culprit behind the bombing spun out from one of the more deranged orbits within these protest movements, Markham goes undercover at various demonstrations in and around London in the hopes of uncovering clues that would lead him to the Heathrow bombing. For Markham, the weekend demonstrations are far more than political events, rather, their essence can only be described as religious: “Protest movements, sane and insane, sensible and absurd, touched almost every aspect of life in London, a vast web of demonstrations that tapped a desperate need for a more meaningful world. . . At times, as I joined a demonstration against animal experiments or Third-World debt, I sensed that a primitive religion was being born, a faith in search of a god to worship” (pp. 37-38).
What does Markham mean by a “more meaningful world”? The world of which Markham speaks is not the narrow and familiar world of pleasures and fears in which we are locked by our own preferences. Instead, one enters it by means an encounter with otherness that is both painful and pleasurable, painful because it reveals to us the limited nature of own knowledge and experience, and pleasurable because it fills us with new and unfamiliar sensations, which are richer and more potent than ordinary freedom and mundane happiness. A “more meaningful world” is by definition beyond one’s grasp, as a middle class, law-abiding individual. One needs contact with someone or something more intelligent, more impulsive, more insane, more dangerous, or otherwise less scrupulous than oneself in order to gain access to it. We may note that in premodern times, such a role was typically fulfilled, for better and for worse, by the Church. We may note as well that the fascination exerted by the criminal, the cult leader, and the tyrant arises from their promise to transport us to regions where we would, on our own, never seek to venture. The enduring popularity of the film Fight Club can be attributed to how it depicts, without quite laying bare, the charismatic appeal of the leader who offers his followers psychic rejuvenation through acts of physical violence and wanton destruction.
As in Fight Club, the protagonist falls in with a group of militants dedicated to committing acts of destruction to shake middle class society out of its spiritual torpor. But unlike in Fight Club, these gallant activists are longer in the tooth, paunchier, and more grey-haired, making Millennium People refreshingly free of the youthful glamour that absolves all mischief for Hollywood audiences. They are also portrayed with a biting humor, not least when they are most hell-bent on spreading mayhem. The most forceful personality in the group belongs to a film studies lecturer named Kay Churchill, who has been suspended from her academic post for giving her students the assignment to shoot a pornographic film. Her reasoning: “I thought they needed a day trip to reality. There’s too much jargon around – ‘voyeurism and the male gaze,’ ‘castration anxieties.’ Marxist theory-speak swallowing its own tail. . . Fucking is what they do in their spare time, so why not look at it through a camera lens? They wouldn’t learn much about sex, but they’d learn a lot about film” (p. 53). Kay is a force of nature whose outbursts of righteous indignation are charged with an irresistible sexual allure, enabling her to become the telegenic center of attention for both police and protesters. Markham becomes her lover knowing full well that once the affair ends, she will miss him for ten minutes and take up the “game of emotional snakes and ladders” leading to her bedroom with the next lodger in her house (p. 212-213). But the psychiatrist also comes across Kay holding a photograph to her chest with tears in eyes – it is a snapshot of her daughter, who moved away to Australia with her father after he was awarded custody over the girl. “Only the deepest obsession could assuage that kind of sadness,” reflects Markham.
Dust covers Kay’s coffee table and writing desk like “an ectoplasmic presence, a parallel world with its own memories and regrets” (p. 50). Ballard is not poking fun in this instance at the slovenly habits of a middle-aged single professional woman. Rather, the fact that Kay does not keep these wooden surfaces bright and shiny is a sign of Ballard’s identification with her. For a steady source of irritation for Ballard, a single father of three, was how female journalists, whenever they showed up at his modest suburban home to interview him, would without fail note the clumps of dust accumulating in the hallways and over the furniture. One wonders whether Ballard wishes for Kay’s outlandishness to be more seductive and intoxicating than the extremity of his own vision. Trying to recruit Markham to their subversive activities, she rails against the spiritual oppression of the middle class in Britain, who are enslaved by their educations, sense of responsibility, and adherence to the law. When the skeptical Markham asks rhetorically, “like the poor in a Glasgow tenement?” Kay replies without skipping a beat and without a trace of irony, “Exactly.”
But Kay is anything but a humorless scold who wants to announce to one and all the deep personal sacrifices she is making to combat the injustices of the world. Rather, the operations she undertakes with her group have an air of devilish playfulness, with a lightness of touch that is largely missing in Fight Club. Pretending to be carrying out a lifestyle survey, Kay asks a housewife if she is in favor of wife swapping, and then steers the conversation towards the legalization of bestiality, after getting the exurbanite to state that she is in favor of consensual sex. Another interviewee, a female doctor, is asked how often she cleans her toilet. Kay then suggests that she have her family bathe less often, on the grounds that “natural body odours are an important means of communication, especially within families” and would give her time to “adopt a freer lifestyle” (p. 88). Kay declares that she and her group seek to root out the beliefs and practices that serve to put the middle class in the straitjacket of proper behavior, the social codes that dictate the “right way to have sex, treat your wife, flirt at tennis parties or start an affair” (p. 89). But what Kay herself feels about the method of liberation she so mischievously prescribes to others is something of an enigma wrapped in a hypocrisy. She tells Markham that she is also busy unlearning these tyrannical bourgeois protocols, but makes sure to assuage what she detects must be for him a grave reservation, “Don’t worry, I still shower every day” (p. 89).
Such double-edged characterizations, in which a single gesture can act as both a warning and a come-on, pervade the novel — they are the hallmark of Ballard’s novels, which effortlessly create the vertiginous effect that accompanies the movement of stumbling into a world more historical and thus more real than one’s own. This playful and alarming sense of ambiguity defines the revolt of the middle class that breaks out in an affluent housing development called Chelsea Marina. The doctors, academics, and civil servants residing there, confronted by a negligent management company that keeps raising fees while refusing to do repairs (“You have to plan when you need a shit,” complains one of the subversives [p. 79]), decide to go on strike against their school fees, maintenance charges, and utility bills. They set up barricades against the police, set fire to cars, and hurl a barrage of souvenir stones gathered from tropical beaches in the Seychelles and Mauritius on the officials attempting to serve an eviction notice. But they also turn to shoplifting from nearby supermarkets and delicatessens, and cannily maneuver their toddlers as human shields to deter police brutality. The vehemence of their resistance makes the working-class refuse collectors too fearful to enter the development and do their work.
Walking past the burned out hulks of BMWs and Volvos sitting along the empty streets of the abandoned by its residents, Markham lingers over the discarded detritus of the educated middle class: “The skip was filled with books, tennis rackets, children’s toys, and a pair of charred skis. Beside a school blazer with scorched piping was an almost new worsted suit, the daytime uniform of a middle-ranking executive, lying among the debris like the discarded fatigues of a soldier who had thrown down his rifle and taken to the hills. The suit seemed strangely vulnerable, the abandoned flag of an entire civilization. . . “ (p. 8). But if the residents of Chelsea Marina, recognizing themselves as the new proletariat, have fought a desperate struggle against the government and the police, their risky and provocative actions appear wildly of out proportion to the fate they seek to avert. When Markham asks why the residents won’t simply to move in response to the deliberate negligence of the management company, which is in cahoots with developers eager to tear down the houses and build more expensive units, Vera, one of Kay’s comrades-in-arms, replies, “We’re all locked into huge mortgages. People have sky-high school fees, and the banks breathing down their necks. Besides, where do we move to? Darkest Surrey? Some two-hour commute to Reading or Guildford?” (p. 79).
The middle class professionals of Chelsea Marina carry on street battles with the police in order to avoid their banishment to more distant and less posh neighborhoods. While the reader, like Markham, is seduced by their political commitment, their willingness to risk life and limb for the sake of what they consider to be right, it is nevertheless impossible to escape the thought that what they are fighting for does not merit such extreme sacrifice. While their grievances against the management company are fully justified, the revolt of the middle class takes on a momentum that carries it beyond mere economic concerns. Liberal democratic ideals like justice and equality proves to be thin gruel compared to the trangressive thrills offered by the suspension of the rules governing everyday reality. The loss of reality comes through in the hyperbolic identifications made by the bourgeois extremists in decrying their plight, the readiness and utter lack of constraint with which they compare their situation to the gulag and the Holocaust.
Millennium People calls to mind, in a somewhat satirical manner, Giorgio Agamben’s contention that the distinction, foundational for classical politics, between “private life and political existence,” no longer holds in the present epoch, since sovereign power has achieved complete domination over human life (Homo Sacer, p. 187). Whereas for Agamben the catastrophe of modern politics is exemplified by the unchecked power of the state, for Ballard, the crisis stems from the bourgeois individual’s own conflicting desires. As the novel’s diabolus ex machina, a doctor working with severely handicapped children, puts it:
“People don’t like themselves today. We’re a rentier class left over from the last century. We tolerate everything, but we know that liberal values are designed to make us passive. We think we believe in God but we’re terrified by the mysteries of life and death. We’re deeply self-centered but can’t cope with the idea of our finite selves. We believe in progress and the power of reason, but are haunted by the darker sides of human nature. We’re obsessed with sex, but fear the sexual imagination and have to be protected by huge taboos. We believe in equality but hate the underclass. We fear our bodies and, above all, we fear death. We’re an accident of nature, but we think we’re at the centre of the universe. We’re a few steps from oblivion, but we hope we’re somehow immortal” (p. 139)
What this means for a bourgeois society undergoing economic hardship, just as it does for one that is unshaken in its confidence in future growth, is the loss of any sense of reasonable equilibrium in political life. What burdens are fair to ask of every individual? How are we to distinguish hobbies from duties, or to separate necessary desires from superfluous ones? Such an equilibrium underpins broad social expectations of fairness and reciprocity. The fact that such expectations have become a chimerical quantity is in my view the greatest obstacle to a politics of economic justice.
Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).
J. G. Ballard, Millennium People (London: Harper Perennial, 2004).