Saturday, February 9, 2013

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Really Torn Up About It: ZERO DARK THIRTY, Torture and Terrorist Realism

     There is something impressive about streamlining -sanding off all edges, trimming away the frills, greasing the gears, vacuuming the hoses, overhauling the engine, getting rid of any governors; there is something sublime about a concrete machine that has been so stripped down as to become almost identical to its blueprint.   It's like a perfectly tailored suit.  It's like West Coast minimalism.  That's what Zero Dark Thirty feels like.  To anyone familiar with the post 9/11 cultural landscape of 24, Homeland, Syriana and, in a different corner, Hostel, Saw and Funny Games, Kathryn Bigelow's film should fit like comfortable thumbscrews.  The film is precisely what you might anticipate; it's singular achievement is being absolutely predictable, like a mathematical equation -a division problem whose answer is always the sovereignty of the U.S. imperial subject and whose remainder is always an Arab corpse.

     In a recent op-ed for The Guardian, Slavoj Žižek bluntly condemns ZDT, claiming that the film "normalizes torture" by contextualizing repeated scenes of brutality within a narrative arc of unquestionable political expediency.  Noting how the CIA "interrogators" in the film seem almost entirely psychologically and emotionally unscathed by their "necessary" and thus routine acts of torment, Žižek concludes,

This is normalisation at its purest and most efficient – there is a little unease, more about the hurt sensitivity than about ethics, but the job has to be done. This awareness of the torturer's hurt sensitivity as the (main) human cost of torture ensures that the film is not cheap rightwing propaganda: the psychological complexity is depicted so that liberals can enjoy the film without feeling guilty. This is why Zero Dark Thirty is much worse than 24, where at least Jack Bauer breaks down at the series finale.

     In a sense, Žižek is right to suggest that depictions of the torturer's "hurt feelings" function as a curtain of maudlin humanism concealing the fundamentally fascist logic of the War on Terror as if torture is somehow justified when the torturer feels sufficiently torn up over it. Žižek's argument falters, however, insofar as his notion of "normalization" doesn't fully account for how these moments of emotional affect relate to the political aesthetic of ZDT.

      Throughout the film, there is more than "a little unease" surrounding torture.  The last shot of the film is a close-up of our main character's face:  asked "where she's going to go" now that she's accomplished her mission, Maya, the CIA operative who has engaged in all manner of torture in her obsessive search for Osama bin Laden, gazes into the camera as tears stream down her face.  That this final image of the film is one of pure affect, that we follow Maya through a process of emotional hardening as she becomes accustomed to the brutality of Bagram and GITMO, that the camera lingers on these scenes of abject torture as if to insinuate that these graphic performances are anything but banal -these elements of the film should signal that "normalizing" is perhaps too simplistic of a term for what is taking place in ZDT.  Instead, and paradoxically, the "normalization" of torture only takes place through the paradoxical presentation of torture as abnormal, as exceptional or spectacular.  I am not just splitting hairs here.  Not accounting for this other dimension of ZDT allows Žižek to make the bizarre and completely contradictory assertion that the television show 24 is somehow much "better" than ZDT presumably because Jack Bauer seems a bit more torn up about it than does Maya.  Is not Žižek's preference for 24 based upon the exact liberal politics of "hurt sensitivity" that he has just (correctly) condemned in ZDT?  In preferring Bauer's (more "extreme"?) breakdown to Maya's breakdown, is Žižek not being seduced by the very liberalism he otherwise critiques?      

     This notion that a performance of affect - i.e. Jack Bauer's emotional breakdown and Maya's weeping - somehow rescues us from ethical bankruptcy is a central facet of what I am calling terrorist realism -of which ZDT and 24 are the blueprints.  Terrorist realism consists of a few key aesthetic equations:  truth equals data; technological systems equal political necessity; surveillance equals bodily violence; and finally bodily violence equals identification.  Along with these rather cold calculations, the other defining feature of this aesthetic is, ironically, a melancholic subject who often weeps, shudders, breaks down, and bemoans his/her complicity with this world of stark equations.  Thus, terrorist realism sutures together two contradictory perspectives on torture: the notion of torture as "normalized" or necessary and the notion of torture as horrifically abnormal and traumatizing.  For terrorist realism, torture is both normal and abnormal, both a necessary, if unpleasant, reality of contemporary globalization and a horrific and anomalous exception.  

     Not at all coincidentally, these two contradictory aspects of terrorist realism reflect the two somewhat divergent, but ultimately consistent, policies of the U.S. presidential administrations that have carried out the U.S.'s imperial policy of torture.  Whilst the Bush Administration expressed the blunt necessity and normalization of torture epitomized by Dick Cheney's matter-of-fact statements regarding "dark sides," the Obama administration gives a sorrowful, affected face to these policies even as it perpetuates them.  (Notice how everyone in the White House is crying now?  Obama, Clinton, Kerry?  Emoting is all the rage.)  The same atrocities that the Bush Administration perpetrated with psychotic banality find their melancholic repetition in the Obama Administration. 

    This subtle difference between the Bush and Obama years - stoic necessity vs. melancholic perpetuation - is important to ZDT.  Indeed, this historical shift in affective tone between administrations divides the first and second parts of the film into two respective moods.   The first quarter of the film establishes the overarching aesthetic framework of terrorist realism.  It is clear from the outset that this will be a film about watching brutality through an integrated system of media technology.  We are barred from seeing the 9/11 attacks, allowed only to hear an actual 9/11 call, and then we are confronted with a series of vignettes in which Maya watches various scenes of torture.  Either she physically occupies the interrogation room itself or she subjects herself to hours of video-taped torture footage via television monitors.  Witnessing violence is thus foregrounded as a theme, and, as Zizek notes, Maya goes through a process of "training" here, moving from being upset by what she witnesses in the torture room to gradually becoming so accustomed to the violence that, at one point, she orders a detainee to be struck.  There is an aesthetic logic at work in these scenes:  torture produces footage or mediated discourse, and this discourse produces data which, in this logic, is synonymous with truth.  Thus, in order to get at the truth, "footage" must be produced and witnessed.  That is to say, the consumption of this footage becomes synonymous with the brutal production of the footage itself in a rigid system of hypermediated suffering.  This equation of witnessing footage and enacting brutality is evidenced by the two competing obsessions of ZDT:  along with scenes of torture, the other phenomenon upon which ZDT dwells is media technology.  The camera pans across huge systems of phone wires, lingers on television screens, redoubles night-vision goggles and so on, as if to evoke an complex matrix of agonized human flesh and communications technologies.

     The "necessity" and normalization of torture in ZDT, then, refers not so much to the nationalistic narrative of protecting American lives at all costs - though that narrative is certainly there - but rather to this specter of a totalized system of meat and media technologies in which Maya is swept up regardless of how she "feels" about it, and indeed this aura of technological necessity pervades the very pacing of the film which rushes the viewer through time and space with only the briefest conspiratorial indication of the plot's intricacies.  Thus, in a profoundly insidious way, the nationalistic narrative of torture's expediency gets translated into a sort of a media-techological determinism.  At the outer-most frame of the metafiction, American imperialism takes on the "normalized," systemic inevitability of Hollywood cinematic editing.

     Alongside this necessity and inevitability, however, ZDT develops a sense of melancholy that becomes more prominent in the second half of the film and certainly in the final shot.  As we move into the Obama years, terrorism and torture begin to impact Maya directly.  A bomb explodes in a restaurant where her friend and her are eating, her car is shot at, and her friend is killed in in a suicide bombing.  In response, Maya's character begins to emote.  She becomes "obsessed" with her mission, traumatized by the loss of her co-workers, and beleaguered by watching hours of torture footage.  The Obama years then take on a character of bodily and psychological vulnerability.  Characters - at least the white American ones - begin to have emotions and emotional attachments.  And again, this sentimentality is punctuated by the final closeup of Maya's crying face.  In these sequences, torture is recast as a horrific labor, an aberration that Maya must endure, an arduous process of consuming and producing awful footage that, by the end of the film, seems to have left her abandoned, alone in a cargo plane with nowhere to go.

     In combining these seemingly contradictory versions of torture - as "normalized necessity" and as "anomalous trauma" - the terrorist realism of ZDT (which is also the general aesthetic of contemporary American imperialism, or globalization, or whatever you would like to call our moment) produces an equation of the melancholic subject in which, again, non-white corporeality is figured as a brutalized remainder.  In this equation, liberal selfhood is proven through viewing scenes of suffering and having the "appropriate" emotional response to this footage.  In this way, by lingering on Maya's emotional responses to the brutality she witnesses, ZDT stages something like a melodrama of the Western self, a self that supposedly must subject itself to the perils of spectacular brutality, at risk of becoming "hardened" into a fascist automaton. 

     Following Ian Baucom, we can write this paradigm of the self-as-witness through a series of equations.  According to the aesthetic logic of terrorist realism, the self asserts its existence by maintaining its consistency in the face of mediated atrocity.  That is, the self becomes enriched and fortified by imagining him/herself in the place of the suffering body he/she is witnessing:

S+I = S'
As Baucom points out, however, there is an inherent paradox in this equation (which is at the heart of the liberal subject and it's formulation through Victorian sentimentalism).  While subjecting oneself to a sympathetic identification with a suffering body, i.e. imagining oneself in the place of the agonized body (S+I), purports to establish the unique humanity of the self and humanism in general (=S'), what it ultimately produces is a generalized spectator -an utterly generic consumer of spectacle.  Thus, S+I=S' translates into Žižek's famous equation for the barred subject of late capitalism.

S+I = $

In the movement from S' to $, the point here is not that the torturer/subject becomes just another cold calculated fascist automaton.  Rather, the point is that the very subject who appears "torn up about it all," the very subject who weeps and breaks down and otherwise bemoans his/her complicity in the horrors of the torture room is precisely the generic subject of Western imperialism.  These performances of being "outraged" or "scandalized" or "traumatized" by torture footage are themselves part of terrorist realism insofar as they maintain the illusion of autonomous liberal selfhood (S').  And, conversely, those examples of the cold, calculated automaton - in ZDT, Maya's partner in the opening torture scenes who seems completely disaffected by the brutality - function as monstrous aberrations who, again, confirm the normality of the autonomous liberal selfhood; these unfeeling robots are what the liberal self might become if he/she "goes too far."  

      In summary, then, as much as terrorist realism dwells upon those bodies incarcerated and tormented before the perpetual gaze of surveillance technologies, it ultimately foregrounds the "imperiled" selfhood of the torturer and the one who must witness torture -the difference between these two positions of torturer and witness, in the final analysis, being negligible.

     But what of these torn up bodies who suffer before the media technologies of terrorist realism?  Whither the torn up corporeality that remains "detained" in countless CIA "black sites" across the globe?  What of the torn up corpses that only appear as pixelated blips on remote weapons monitors?  If terrorist realism ultimately foregrounds the melodrama of a liberal self, these bodies who fall under the mediated gaze of this self still have a role to play.  Indeed, we must ask after these bodies in order to properly understand terrorist realism as, first and foremost, a political aesthetic of race.  At the conclusion of ZDT, after bin Laden has apparently been assassinated and his body taken to a Navy SEAL base, the camera pans over computer monitors, videotapes and other media technology confiscated from his hideout, and finally the camera comes to rest on the faceless corpse which Maya will then gaze upon and identify.  This key sequence crystalizes a racial duality that had been developing throughout the film.  It is not enough to say that the tortured bodies of the film are Arab, and the torturers/witnesses are white.  Rather, the process of hypermediated brutalization that takes place in ZDT and that takes place in GITMO and other such sites, reproduces this distinction where whiteness equates with the imperiled witnessing/torturing subject and Arabness equates with a hypervisible tortured body.  As if to underscore this equation, the final sequence of ZDT aligns a generic "Arab" corpse with a long table of media technologies.  It is as though the Arab body becomes just another confiscated media device upon which the (white) Western subject can gaze.   

     To account for this process of racialization, then, we should revise the above equations of subjectivization.  What we are dealing with here is a division problem.  If the liberal self is established through a process of imaginary witness (S+I=S' or S+I =$), then we must reformulate this mediated witnessing as a division problem whose remainder, again, is a racialized corporeality.

S/I = $ r ¢
(subject divided by imaginary witnessing equals barred subject with the remainder of a racialized corpse)

For the abundance of footage of tortured, mutilated and murder Arab bodies produced by the War on Terror, the underlying aesthetic of this war ironically "dematerializes" these bodies, literally collapsing the distinction between the material body itself and the mediated image of this body.  Not surprisingly, ZDT ends with the identification of an Arab body as "bin Laden," but then neglects to depict the final fate of this body (and indeed the fate of this body remains a subject of speculation).  This is because, at least for the aesthetic of terrorist realism, the material body - the remainder - no longer matters; it needn't be accounted for or buried.  It can be discarded into a sort of existential void; tossed into the sea or incinerated.  Or, as with the corporeal remains supposedly belonging to the 9/11 hijackers, these bodies can persist in a sort of refrigerated limbo, as a perpetual "evidence."  This corporeality only becomes visible for the gaze of the liberal subject.

     It is this voided corporeal remainder, this body rendered hypervisible yet, paradoxically, invisible, that delineates the globalized racism of the War on Terror.  This war, and its underlying aesthetic of terrorist realism, has made this racialized flesh both absolutely compliant to the white Western gaze yet also completely inapparent.  As with ZDT where the body of bin Laden is both absolutely visible for Maya's gaze yet, finally, removed from the screen to be replaced by her weeping face.

     As the blueprint for terrorist realism, then, ZDT participates in a necromancy of globalization.  In keeping with political aesthetic of the War on Terror, the film refuses to bury the Arab bodies it puts on display; it refuses to acknowledge any existence of these bodies outside of their tortured status as potential evidence; it, thereby, refuses to allow these bodies a proper death but instead suspends them in a perpetual state of spectacular and anonymous dying, where their torture never stops producing data in the form of media images.  That is to say, the film doesn't merely "support" or "champion" the U.S.'s global agenda.  The film carries out this agenda; it is itself an act of imperialism.                 




Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Understanding Turbans 2.0

Sikh men commonly wear a peaked turban that serves partly to cover their long hair, which is never cut out of respect for God's creation.  Some Sikhs prefer the films of Adam Sandler. Devout Sikhs also do not cut their beards, so many Sikh men comb out their facial hair and then twist and tuck it up into their turbans along with the hair from their heads.  Sikhs often like to watch the sunset on cool summer evenings. Sikhism originated in northern India and Pakistan in the 15th century and is one of the youngest of the world's monotheistic religions.  There once was a Sikh who claimed to have been abducted by an alien.  The alien turned out to be a magical butterfly and they fell in love forever. There are an estimated 18 million Sikhs in the world, with some 2 million spread throughout North America, Western Europe and the former British colonies.  Sikhs are not chairs. 



Muslim religious elders, like this man from Yemen, often wear a turban wrapped around a cap known in Arabic as a kalansuwa.  This is a real man.  He is from Yemen.  His name is Frank Stallone.  Frank Stallone’s caps can be spherical or conical, colorful or solid white, and their styles vary widely from region to region.  Frank Stallone is a mixture of ink and water, from Yemen, which we have imprisoned here through the use of tabs and Microsoft code. Likewise, the color of the turban wrapped around the kalansuwa varies. White is thought by some Muslims to be the holiest turban color, based on legends that the prophet Mohammed wore a white turban.   Green, held to be the color of paradise, is also favored by some.  My favorite color is purple. Not all Muslims wear turbans. In fact, few wear them in the West, and in major cosmopolitan centers around the Muslim world, turbans are seen by some as passé. Frank Stallone was in movies that are also seen by some as passé.


John Wayne rarely wore a Devo cap, but this photograph appears to be an exception. Devo is an American Heavy Metal band best known for their hit singles “Metal Health” and “Cum on Feel the Noize.”  The band was founded in 1973 by guitarist Randy Rhoads and Bassist Kelly Garni under the original name Mach 1 before changing the name to Little Women and finally Quiet Riot in May of 1975.  John Wayne died of Genital Herpes on June 11, 1979.                                                     


Afghan men wear a variety of turbans, and even within the Taliban, the strict Islamic government that controls much of the country, there are differences in the way men cover their heads.  There are also many differences in the way men walk.  There are differences in their smiles and in the pitch of their laughter as well.  There are differences in their ages, and they tend to walk in different directions on different days.  Differences can also be detected in their speech patterns and in how deeply they sigh after long walks at dusk when contemplating the strange way in which life seems quite long yet also quite short at the same time.  This TalibanÒ member, for example, is wearing a very long turban — perhaps two twined together — with one end hanging loose over his shoulder.  The TalibanÒ is not different.  His gaze is averted.  All Taliban avert their gazes, thusly.  Behind his back, he is holding a nametag that reads, I am not Frank Stallone.  I am TalibanÒ member.  The TalibanÒ ambassador to Afghanistan, on the other hand, favors a solid black turban tied above his forehead. And some men in Afghanistan do not wear turbans at all, but rather a distinctive Afghan hat.  Other Afghan wear clothes as well.   


The Dodo (Raphus cucullatus) cannot wear hats because it is totally dead thanks to white people.  The Dodo was first mentioned by Dutch sailors in 1598.  Hereafter the bird was preyed upon by hungry sailors, their domestic animals, and other invasive species introduced during that time, and the last credible sighting is from 1662.  In Gravity’s Rainbow, a really long and awful book that everyone should read, Thomas Pynchon claims that the father of Tyrone Slothrop killed the last Dodo.


Iranian leaders wear black or white turbans wrapped in the flat, circular style shown in this image of Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who is an Iranian Leader.  This painting is from a recent court case involving parking tickets.  Like Sikhs, all Iranian leaders wear glasses. The word turban is thought to have originated among Persians living in the area now known as Iran, who called the headgear a dulband.  The word parking ticket is thought to have originated as well.     


Indian men sometimes wear turbans to signify their class, caste, profession or religious affiliation — and, as this man shows, turbans in India can be very elaborate.  He seems happy to me, content in his extravagance, but perhaps somewhat melancholy.  Does not his smile seem a bit forced, his eyes a bit distant and contemplative, as though he cannot let go of some past regret.  Oh dear sir, our lives do slip away so quietly, unbeknownst to us, and one day, perhaps as we are finishing an afternoon snack or turning off the television as another rerun of House MD is drawing to a close, we realize that we are now middle aged, and what do we have to show for it but hazy memories of the most banal of pleasures. However, turbans made out of fancy woven cloths and festooned with jewels are not unique to India. As far away as Turkey, men have used the headgear to demonstrate their wealth and power.


The kaffiyeh is not technically a turban.  This is not technically Yasser Arafat.


Desert peoples have long used the turban to keep sand out of their faces, as this man from Africa is likely doing.  He is most likely a man, and Africa is most likely a place one can be from, and there is most likely sand there, in Africa. Members of nomadic tribes have also used turbans to disguise themselves because sometimes it is liberating to be anonymous.  Sometimes, I walk around the Target Superstore pretending I am a man named Henry, and I purchase a Vitamin Water with a personal check, and I sign the check Henry Africa.  And sometimes, the color of a person's turban can be used to identify his tribal affiliation from a distance across the dunes.  I have never identified anything from a distance across the dunes, but I would like to someday.    I would also like someone to call to me from a distance across the Target Superstore, “Hey Henry Africa, what’s happening.”  I would then say, no, you have the wrong person.  This man's turban is a very light blue.  I ran out of very light blue, so some of it is white. In some parts of North Africa, blue is thought to be a good color to wear in the desert because of its association with cool water.  Water is something people like to drink in Africa.  

With help from The Seattle Times 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Post-Empire For Your Ipod: A Summer Mix Tape in the Spirit of Terror

It's Your Mixtape Baby!

     As some of you might have noted, pomo enfant terrible, Bret Easton Ellis, recently wrote a piece for The Daily Beast on Charlie Sheen's hypervisible meltdown in which the novelist coins the term post-empire to describe a glamorous nihilism emerging in contemporary popular culture.  Post-empire is a concept worth holding onto and exploring in more detail, and what better way to explore this Post-Imperial structure of feeling than by giving my fellow spuds an illustrative mixtape? 

     Now, before we launch into the tunes, some explanations are in order.  First, the songs that follow don't really exemplify Post-Empire as Ellis defines it.  If you want a mixtape exemplifying Post-Empire, merely sit down with your TV and flip back and forth between whatever music channels you have.  Properly Post-Imperial music would include the likes of Ke$ha, Wiz Khalifa, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, and providing you with a mixtape of such sonic residue would be, at the very least, a second order redundancy.  So, this mixtape features songs about rather than of Post-Empire.

     This, however, leads to a second caveat:  the very concept of Post-Empire tends to efface any distinction between about and of.  With Post-Empire, Ellis names the aesthetic of profound nihilism at work in his own fiction.  The conundrum of nihilism is that, by affirming nothing, you risk affirming everything, albeit with a cynical smirk.  Indeed, one might ask whether Ellis himself critiques or contributes to the bourgeois culture depicted in his novels.  For example, is American Psycho "about" or "part of" the Bruegelian landscape of bloodshed and conspicuous (cannibalistic) consumption that drools forth on its pages?  In a sort of negative realism, Post Imperial representation tend to give way to affirmation.  Of course, "postmodern" would do just fine as a term for this crisis of critical distance, but Ellis's notion of post-empire, like his fiction, emphasizes the latent brutality of this aesthetic blankness.  Postmodern is Andy Warhol's factory churning out silk-screens; Post-Empire, on the other hand, is Warhol and Co. merrily dining on the mutilated corpses of pre-pubescent undocumented day laborers brought into the factory make said silkscreens.  Perhaps merely a difference of degree, but a difference nonetheless.  Thus, the songs that follow are meant to capture a sort of blank violence that is more Post-Imperial than postmodern, the difference being the violence.

     Thirdly, like postmodern, Post-Imperial doesn't necessarily denote periodic difference.  We were not once imperial and now post-imperial.  The difference is one of aesthetics rather than time period.  This blank, smiley-face nihilism of Post-Empire has been around at least since Reagan's morning in America.  Indeed, the entire career of Stanley Kubrick, excepting perhaps 2001:  A Space Odyssey but especially A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket, can be seen as it least teetering on the aesthetic precipice separating Empire from Post-Empire.  So this is certainly not a new structure of feeling.  Thus, not all of the songs on this mixtape are completely new.

    Finally, however, the "war on terror" and our concurrent sentiment of "tolerance-chic" have brought Post-Imperial nihilism into sharp relief.  Indeed, what could be more Post-Imperial than our joyful celebration of bin Laden's death?  Vacuous, excessive, implicitly (or sometimes downright explicitly) brutal -our celebration captures the extent to which the war on terror is Post-Imperial.  Maureen Dowd's recent op-ed in The New York Times, "Killing Evil Doesn't Make Us Evil," reflects vividly the gleeful arrogance of Post-Empire.  Claiming "I want memory, and justice, and revenge" and concluding that "morally and operationally, this was counterterrorism at its finest," Dowd sounds exactly like one of the melancholic supermodel/terrorists of Ellis's Glamorama.  Like the main character of the novel, Dowd flaunts her vapid and callous tautologies, quipping, "I leave it to subtler minds to parse the distinction between what is just and what is justified."  And her conclusion, "We have nothing to apologize for" is practically the thesis statement of Ellis's fiction, the only difference being that Ellis and his fictional characters appear a bit more disturbed by this surrender to passive nihilism then does Dowd.  The point being, the war on terror is sooooo Post-Empire dude.  It's rock and roll baby.  Lock and load.  Fuck those subtler minds.  Git 'er done.  Spare me.

     So, without further ado, plug up your skull with your earpegs and prepare for Bad Penny's summer tour of sonic malaise.  As you listen, perhaps envision roadside bombs exploding, U.S. military police forcing "enemy combatants" to masturbate, shiny happy people congregating in Time Square to celebrate the splattering of Osama's brains, Mickey Mouse patting a toe-headed child on the ass, Katy Perry stuffing kittens down the throat of a boy with cerebral palsy, Bono and the Edge performing "enhanced interrogation techniques" on sex-trafficked Cambodian girls, and. . . lulz cats.     

1)  Nine Inch Nails:  "Capital G"

     On Year Zero, Trent Reznor's brand of industrial cynicism found a new political edge.  "Capital G" encapsulates what might be called a crisis of irony indicative of post-empire.  When Reznor snarls "I'm sick of hearing about the haves and the have nots.  Have some personal responsibility" is he parodying or affirming American arrogance and selfishness?  One could imagine some jocko-homo meathead fratfuck pumping his fist and singing these lyrics as the beat thumps from his daddy's hummer just as easily as one can imagine some liberal, vegan hipster (like me) chanting along with an ironic sneer.  As Year Zero announces, it doesn't fucking matter how you "take it" as long as you take it.  Hell, Reznor already anticipated post-empire back in 94, on The Downward Spiral when he sang a brutally honest and heartfelt love song to the pigs.  

2) Suicide:  "Station Station"

     Of course, long before Reznor churned out his first slice of post-imperial wax, Alan Vega and Martin Rev - under the moniker Suicide - were fusing industrial noise with an uncompromisingly bleak picture.  While Suicide dropped most of their horror in the early seventies and late eighties, 9/11 resurrected the duo for 2002's American Supreme, a sonic landscape of New York after the "terrorist" attacks.  Since then, frontman Vega has become something of a rock poet of the terror apocalypse.  Completely post-empire, Vega rarely judges the voices of fascism, greed and hatred that chatter on the streets of empire's metropolises.  Rather, he embodies these voices in his characteristic schizoid yelps, howls and growls.  Admittedly, there is something very empire about his lament that "there was a time when you could dream," but even these lines sound like some lost recording unearthed from the rubble.  That is, even the nostalgia here seems housed in an archive and almost droned out by distorted synths and electronic drums.  But, then again, post-empire is not un-nostalgic to begin with.

3)  Pig Destroyer:  "Deathtripper"

       Grindcore has an intimate relationship with post-empire.  With roots in hardcore punk and crust-punk, grind has always referenced globalization.  Arguably the first grindcore album, Napalm Death's Scum (1987), opens with the the chant "Multinational corporations/ genocide of the starving nations" and featured an album cover depicting CEOs on top of a mountain of skulls along with logos from major corporations.  The preachy tone of Napalm, however, still suggests an empire morality especially when compared to more contemporary grindcore such as Agoraphobic Nosebleed, Cephalic Carnage and Pig Destroyer.  Indeed, if there were a sonic equivalent to Ellis's American Psycho and Glamorama, it would be contemporary grindcore.  Like these novels, grind is meticulously composed, brutally repetitious and senselessly violent.  The aesthetic works to achieve a pure affective impact, stripped of all content.  Indeed, the lyrics to the above track - "I hold your hands in mine/ the rest of you is scattered all over/ your rib cage is open like a great white's jaws/ your legs look so sexy out of context" - are both brutally violent yet abstract.  The legs aren't amputated; they are "out of context."  Violence bleeds into pure abstraction especially when considering that these lyrics are themselves basically unintelligible on the track.  Grindcore then, and especially Pig Destroyer, are the sound of a generation whose minds have been numbed by interweb war porn.

4)  Dead Kennedys:  "Kill the Poor"

     Arguably, Jello Biafra is still very empire insofar as his political satire reflects someone who still cares very much about humanity.  On songs like "Kill the Poor," "Soup is Good Food" and "Holiday in Cambodia," however, Jello's satire reaches a level of ghoulishness and glee that tips into post-empire.  Indeed, one live performance of "Holiday in Cambodia" ends with Jello leaping into the crowd as he screams "Pol Pot."  It is difficult to tell, at this point, whether or not jouissance has taken over satirical critique, and this not-so-delicate slamdance between socially-conscious satire and anti-social revery is what makes The Dead Kennedys timeless masters of the post-empire aesthetic.  Nowhere is this master craftsmanship more vivid than on "Kill the Poor."

 5)  Godflesh:  Slavestate

     In many ways, Justin Broadrick's departure from Napalm Death and founding of Godflesh amounts to a shift from empire to post-empire.  While the grind aesthetic of Napalm is certainly louder, faster and less danceable than Godflesh, the industrial noise of Godflesh bespeaks a much more bleak and apathetic worldview than anything found on Napalm albums or really on many grindcore albums period.  While globalization is still a political issue for Napalm, it becomes a metaphysical condition for Godflesh.  In a much more troubling way then Reznor could ever imagine, Broadrick seems to get off on absolute subjugation.  Songs such as "Like Rats," "Head Dirt," and "Anything is Mine" blend eroticism, brutality and a bizarre spirituality with hammering drum machines and spastic baselines.  Not unlike Cormac McCarthy, Broadrick gives us a strangely beautiful, apocalyptic, post-imperial vision.

6)  Death Grips: "Blood Creepin"

      Who the fuck knows what Death Grips is?  A project began by mathcore drummer Zach Hill and some of his friends, the avant-noise rap aggression of the debut album, "Exmilitary" (!) sounds like sonic sheet-metal scavenged from the scrapyard of hip hop and punk long after pop culture has descended into a Thunderdome future.   The barked lyrics recall everything from MOP thug-style to Black Flag-esque alienation and hostility.  In a sense, Death Grips returns us to the digital noise and lyrical sniper-fire of Suicide but now with a post-Wu Tang funk.  It's too soon to pigeonhole Death Grips or to decide what the world-view of the band might be, but it certainly seems adequately Post-Imperial. 

7)  Kanye West:  "Monster"

I've already blogged extensively on this track and it's significance to our current cultural moment.  Suffice to say, with "Monster" Kanye, Jay, and Minaj have perfected post-imperial hip hop.  

8)  Ministry:  "The Land of Rape and Honey"

So you might notice that this mixtape consists of large amount of 80s-90s industrial music.  I haven't really worked out precisely why that is.  Perhaps, more than any other subgenre of pop music, Wax Trax era industrial music captured the amalgam of cynicism, hedonism and brutality that is the post-empire pose.  Without a doubt, the jackhammer sounds of Al Jorgensen and Ministry resonate with the main tenants of post-empire, especially on the earlier albums.  Al's lyrics and videos during this period depict a vile and venomous world of Bush I, soaked in greed, hypocrisy and heroin, and with respect to this world, Uncle Al casts no moralistic judgements; he merely reads the news.  Much like the Dead Kennedys, Ministry does an exhilarating tight rope act, balancing between the satirical stance of empire and the orgiastic wallowing of post-empire.  In fact, what makes the last few Ministry albums fail is that Al gets a bit too preachy.  He starts to sound a bit too much like a moralizing liberal in his satirical critique of Bush II.  Or maybe the problem was something much more simple.  Al just stopped doing Horse.  Give me the old Ministry;  the Ministry who got busted in K-Mart at two o'clock in the morning for heroin possession.

9)  Swans: "Power for Power"

As a young lad, standing upon the stage with his pale body clad only in a make-shift loin cloth, like a cross between Jesus Christ and Jeffery Dahmer, chanting "stick a knife in me" over and over again for twelve minutes backed by a slamming and trudging industrial soundtrack, M. Gira understood more than a little about post-empire.  He understood that all Americans, whether secretly or openly, whether guiltily or proudly, are in love with the nightmare of torture and domination they have unleashed upon the planet.  I remember being mortified when I first heard Swans, and it was the kind of mortification that can only be evoked by a confrontation with a truth.  This is why the songs of early Swans consist only of perhaps ten words and four notes repeated over and over again for well over ten minutes.  Post-empire is tautological and perpetual.  It doesn't make sense but instead imposes its nonsense directly onto the body.  It's like fucking.  It's stupid and repetitious and undeniable and defiant of any moral code.   

10)  Tyler the Creator "Bastard/Seven"
Okay, the first mistake was giving a wildly talented, overly ambitious, incredibly arrogant and utterly bleak seventeen-year-old a microphone.  Odd Future is the anti-It-Gets-Better.  What currently irritates folks about this group isn't the use of homophobic slurs but instead the self-conscious embodiment of everything American culture secretly hates about young people (and is secretly afraid of about black people).  Glee be damned, high school is ground zero for post empire, and Odd Future constantly remind us of this unpleasant fact.  Thus, their presence in our current tolerance-chic climate is Nietzschean in its untimeliness, and the current backlash against the group reveals a deep-seated ressentiment at the heart of our feel-good multiculturalism.  In a sense, "growing up" has always meant learning to engage in bullshit fantasies about how "people are really good inside" and how "if you believe in yourself, you can be anything" and how "a big hug can make all the difference."  We grow up and learn how to be moralizing, Imperial liberals.  But don't worry, Odd Future is only to eager to remind us that, to quote Whitney Houston, the children are the future, and the future is post-imperial.

Swag to that, spuds!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Osama's Dead, Come On Get Happy: The War on Terror is All About the Ya Yas!

      Outside of whatever media circus tent where the juggalos congregate, performing idiotic proxysms of heroism and victimization, there you shall find Bad Penny.  And oh my spuds, what a carnival of patriotic chest-beating and gleeful amnesia has been unleashed by recent news of Osama bin Laden's utterly timely demise:

Of course, you've all seen this footage.  Even if you haven't seen it, you've seen it.  Were we to have speculated, three weeks ago, about what the streets of the U.S. might look like upon news of bin Laden's death, we probably would have imagined scenes such as these or maybe this:

As a friend of mine suggested, this latter video is, perhaps, a parody.  However, the question of this video's sincerity takes us right to heart of the cave in which bin Laden will always hide regardless of how many times we kill him.  The reason that we all secretly knew exactly what would happen when bin Laden was killed, the reason that satire falters upon the news of his death is because bin Laden is spectacle through and through.  So, in a sense, the cave in which bin Laden will forever hide belongs to Plato.  As spectacle, everything about bin Laden's trajectory through history is utterly predictable, and as spectacle, he is, for better or worse, timeless.  We all knew that this whole Bugs Bunny chase scenario was a sham, just as we all knew that our exhibitionist-nationalist responses to its culmination would be a sham, and it's quite difficult to parody something that is already ridiculous.

     But calling bin Laden a spectacle is about as predictable as the most recent Lady Gaga video.  Thus, why say another word about the killing of Osama bin Laden?  Why contribute to this nauseating hide-and-seek game that is the "war on terror."  Where is he hiding?  Will Obama hide the photographs?  Why couldn't we see the body?  Why couldn't Pakistan see bin Laden?  All this chatter about visibility.  Fuck that.

     We need to discuss the death of bin Laden, not on these terms, but precisely because his death signaled an alarming absence of discussion on the part of both liberals and conservatives.  And in this void of thoughtful discussion democrats and republicans have come together in a big old greasy gang bang of hardcore patriotic punish fucking to the pelvic thrusting chants of "USA  USA USA."  Hark, the sound of hegemony quakes upon the horizon.  While conservative juggalos jumped at the opportunity to do their Larry the Cable Guy routine,

the popular liberal response went something like this:  "I know his death changes nothing, but I'm still happy he's dead."  What these responses share is happiness.  There seems to be a mandate right now to confess one's joy at the death of bin Laden.  Whether we dance about in the streets, proudly, with cowboy hats and American flags or murmur our enthusiasm with a healthy bit of guilty apprehension, we must, it seems, make visible our pleasure.  Even if we preface this admission of exuberance with a well-reasoned account of precisely how this one death means absolutely nothing with respect to ending the war on terror, we must still make it clear that we are glad bin Laden is dead.
     Because, honestly, the war on terror has always been a feel-good war.  The primary concern has always been the emotional state of the Americans.  Hence, not the conservative populism of new country music, but instead, the vacuous emotional excess of emo-core provides the perfect soundtrack to the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq:

 We're told that the death of bin Laden is good because it "gives the victims of 9/11 closure" as though this entire war were a big exercise in group therapy!  Scream therapy to be more precise.  To sample some Zizek here, the liberal emo response -"but still I'm glad he's dead" - reiterates the "I know very well that this is the case, but nevertheless" structure of ideology, and the subject reflected by this formation is precisely the American subject who is at once melancholic and ecstatic, who is both a tragic victim and a heroic patriot, both the wounded sensitive croon and the aggro scream.  In this respect, our liberal response smacks of a particular insincerity since much of our enjoyment is projected onto conservative juggalos who are only too eager to act out our pleasures like so many court jesters.  The overarching subject, however, must enjoy this death one way or another.

     So, once again, through the presto-chango magic show of the war on terror, the story of a dead Arab transforms into the story of a victimized America overcoming its adversities.  In order to adequately address this reversal, we must talk about a concept that has been almost entirely erased from discourses about the war generally and bin Laden's death specifically -raceAlways at the forefront of American political discourse, South Park new immediately that the war on terror would be about race.  By being honestly racist and by referencing the history of racist caricatures in American cartoons, South Park captured the centrality of race to American ideas about bin Laden, and, now, we are only too happy to actualize the jouissance depicted in "Osama bin Laden has Farty Pants."  We are only too happy to embody Cartman.  Long before the war on terror, the "Arab" of racist fantasy always reflected perverse sexuality, surplus enjoyment and, conversely, the worries that Western subjects aren't enjoying, that we might be emotionally deadened by our consummerist culture, that we just aren't feelin it.  Should it be surprising, then, that this collective swelling of American enthusiasm results from the killing of a figure who has, for a long while, embodied all these racist ideas about Arabness?  Should it come as a shock that even those who admit that his death changes little in terms of geopolitics still express relief at his death?  Should it be at all astonishing that the death of bin Laden is "worth it" merely because it "makes us glad"?

     Make no mistake, there are no exceptions to this pronoun "we" that I'm bandying about.  Even in theorizing this American emoting subject, I am not excepting myself from it.  We are all in the same public pool, drinking the same piss, and there is no life guard to blow the whistle.  Indeed, bin Laden and countless other Arabs, whose deaths and humiliations at the hands of Western imperialism are either hypervisible or visible in their horrific censorship, amount to a bare life.  Their deaths mean nothing; they are not sacrificed.  But their killing is mandated in order to support a multicultural collective "we" of Empire.  The mourning that must take place for there to ever be an end to this war, and, unfortunately, the mourning that will probably never take place, is the mourning for these bodies.  Hence, the anxieties about disposing of bin Laden's remains in a way that wouldn't allow for memorials.  The Arab "terrorist" body signifies nothing; it will not be buried properly. 

     What would have happened had we done the unthinkable and mourned the passing of bin Laden or the countless other Arab bodies that have been disappeared by the C.I.A. in a torture program that has now found renewed enthusiastic supportOf course this is a silly question to ask in the current climate of Bind, Torture, Kill and Celebrate.  What's clear now is that all the policies of the Bush and Obama administrations leading up to bin Laden's death can find a bizarre sort of justification in our collective melancholic festivities.                                       

Duty now for the future, spuds.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Bride of Frankenstein Goes to Cairo: A Final Note on the Egyptian Revolution

     Some final comments on the Egyptian revolution, and then I'll get back to blogging about what really matters:

First, much has been made of Egypt's plugging up of the intertubes, especially considering certain WikiLeaked cables that turned up on the brink of the uprising which documented the U.S.'s seemingly contradictory investments in the region.  It would appear that blacking out the net is a fool's errand as it only made the revolt more visible on the global stage.  The hundreds of thousands of protesters on the streets of Cairo hardly needed a weatherman to know which way the wind was blowing, and the seeming impossibility of shutting down the single site, WikiLeaks, casts serious doubt upon the capacity to enact any substantial web-based censorship on a global scale.

      Now, about those contradictory investments of the U.S.  WikiLeaks released two sets of cables which depict the U.S. in a somewhat non-monogamous relationship with the Mubarak regime.  The first cables seemed to indicate that Mubarak and Obama were bffs, but a subsequent document suggested that the U.S. actually provided assistance to rebel forces.  So what's the deal, Obama.  As Randall once advised Dante, "Don't pine for one and fuck the other."  Actually, I'm guessing the U.S. was probably playing the old game of "subversion and containment," attempting to "destabilize and reform" the Egyptian government in the grand tradition of shock doctrine capitalism.  But the stammering and stuttering of Gibbs and Clinton suggest that the U.S. is feeling every bit the melancholic and anxious Dr. Frankenstein, regarding with great apprehension the "monster" he had deluded himself into thinking he's created and can now control.

     Or perhaps a better analogy is Wale's The Bride of Frankenstein since, in allegedly backing certain rebel forces, the U.S. seems to have wanted to create a softer, kinder monster, to befriend the lumbering oaf of a dictator that was Mubarak.  And we all know how that plan played out:

Indeed, given the important role that women appear to have played in the Egyptian revolution, the comparison with The Bride seems fitting:
Monstrous Refusals
A successful revolution in Egypt will be properly monstrous, and it will reject its marriage, arranged by the West, with that other 30-year-old monster that is neoliberal Egypt.  This new monstrous bride upon the streets of Cairo -her fidelity will lie elsewhere, in an out-place that has yet to be named.  It will exist as long as it issues its impossible demand and as long as it refuses any pre-engineered fate in the shape of "reform."

       Secretary of State, Clinton has said, "We want to see an orderly transition so that no one fills a void, that there not be a void, that there be a well-thought-out plan that will bring about a democratic participatory government."  It is precisely the void that terrifies the West, the void, perhaps, of an open mouth emitting a scream of protest.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Cairo, Cairo, Mi Amour: Notes on the Probable Failure of the Egyptian Revolution

     Like many of you, I've been watching the events in Cairo unfold with great enthusiasm, and given the usual negative tone to these blog posts, I thought the uprising in Egypt would provide an excellent opportunity to affirm something for a change.  So, in an attempt at optimism, let's admit to ourselves the high probability that what's happening in Egypt will fail!

     Let's admit that the remarkable courage of the Egyptian people, many of whom have staked their bodies and their lives upon reclaiming the Commons, will most likely not shatter the order of global capitalism.  But, let us also, and in the same breath, celebrate this glorious failure.  Let us recognize that each failure - the UC protests, the London protests, the Egyptian uprising, the Tunisian revolt and so on and so forth - contains a kernel of the possible.  In each of these instances, we glimpse a possible body which is almost visible amidst the dazzling spectacle of the hypervisible.

     The greatest mistake with respect to this almost inevitable failure is to fall into a Thermidorean pattern of thought.  That is to say, the greatest error, and the error which neoliberalism demands that we make, is to equate the final result of Egypt (which could very well be disappointing for any communist aspirations) with the spirit of the revolt as such.  Perhaps the most crucial aspect of this spirit, which has been noted numerous times, is that it wasn't fueled by any single group.  This movement of the youth seems to have erupted spontaneously.  And, in this sense, this movement lacks a telos; in fact, this lack of a telos seems to propel this movement to generate their extraordinary demands and refusals in the face of hegemony machine consisting of the Mubarak regime, the Western media, the Obama administration and Israel -i.e. the usual suspects.

     A couple of notes on these suspects.  1) Note how often even the otherwise commendable Aljazeera was asking "who will replace Mubarak?"  2)  Note the insistence of Press Secretary Gibbs and Secretary of State Clinton that Egypt "not slide into chaos" and 3) that the Mubarak regime should "address the legitimate grievances" of the people.  4)  Note the preoccupation with whether or not the freedom fighters of Egypt are "looting."  This is all precisely the Thermindorean discourse of neoliberalism.

1)  The demand to know "who will replace Mubarak" attempts to contain the movement in the streets by quite literally capping this rupture with another figurehead, and almost certainly one supported by U.S. led Empire.

2)  The "concern" that the country will "slide into chaos" implies that "order" should be restored, and the only order that now exists and can thus be restored is that of neoliberalism.  (But of course, the people of Egypt have announced a new order.  This order has formed upon the street; this body-of-truth appears in its disappearance as fragments of the army coalesce with fragments of protesters, as the Muslim Brotherhood is enveloped in the movement, as the poor and the students stand together. . . this body-of-truth only appears to be a slide toward chaos when viewed through the lens of the restorative or rather reactionary order of neoliberalism.)

3)  The grievances that we see issued from the people of Egypt are precisely illegitimate; they cannot be legitimated by the current Mubarak government because they are first and foremost based upon the dissolution of this government.

4)  Finally, in Egypt, something like 50% of the population lives below the poverty line and wealth is anything but evenly distributed.  In the context of global capitalist domination, can anyone imagine a revolution that would not feature some attack upon private property and commodities.  I would say no, and when this economic offensive happens, it will almost surely be called "looting" by the mainstream media again as a way to demonize revolutionary forces and champion liberal values.

     One final point.  As has been noted on Aljazeera, prior to this almost certainly unsuccessful revolution, the subjective orientation of the Egyptian people was apparently quite apathetic.  That a seemingly spontaneous revolt sprang from an otherwise quite apathetic population is remarkable.  We might say that, in this respect, Egypt provides the most hopeful evidence for what Badiou calls an "active nihilism."  Unlike the steadfastly Thermidorean "passive nihilists" who "wish to convey to the young the idea that the essence of discordance consists in the defeat of beliefs, the crisis of ideologies, the crash of Marxism" the "active nihilist" "has never believed" but is nevertheless "in search of a form of confidence."  For the active nihilist, the "only future is courage, and it is toward this courage that his anxiety guides him by the sureness of the real" (Theory of the Subject 329).  If it is indeed possible for the great nihilism of postmodernity to be swept up in confidence and courage, then it must look something like the streets of Egypt do at this hour.  And if it is possible in Egypt, then it is possible in all the other outposts of nihilism around the globe.  In the end, what Egypt will have not failed to do is give us a glimpse of this Subject of courage and confidence, and it is our duty to not fail in our recognition of this Subject, this incredible body-of-truth.  

This is indeed our duty now for the future spuds.