Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Thoughts on Kwai


Tonight, I rechristened my love of David Lean movies by watching the first thirty-seven minutes of Bridge On the River Kwai. A scene at the beginning of the movie, the significance of which I missed the first time I saw it, struck me this evening as not only central to the themes of the film (law, will, honor) but as a sort of parable for a changing world. Kwai came out in 1957 but was made several years prior; it's set during WWII in a POW camp in Burma and follows a brigade of British soldiers, led by Alec Guinness, who had been ordered by higher-ups to surrender to the Japanese. The British are ordered to build a bridge, and this sets the film in motion. The scene I have in mind takes place during the brigade's first night at the camp: the British officers have gathered, along with an American major posing as a Naval officer, to discuss their predicament and the possibility of escape. When the American learns that Guinness intends to fulfill the command of his general by ordering his men to remain in the camp, he protests - "But this is not a civilized place," to which Guinness responds, "Then we shall have to introduce civilization here." He then argues that the only way for the men to remain soldiers is by obeying the letter of the law, and their officers, or risk becoming lawless slaves. "I'm just a slave, only a slave," responds the American, who later escapes.

Sherief and I agree, I think, with the opinion of Hardt, Negri, and others, that the characteristic shift in American thought and politics during the course of the past half-decade has been from imperialism to empire. Certainly we are not so far out of the mainstream in our thinking. This shift is writ large in Kwai, in which it is the American (no surprise) who, following no law but that of his own skin, leads to the downfall of the bridge project and to Guinness' death. There is something so consummately imperialistic (not imperial) about Guinness' civilizing ambition and fidelity to military code - and especially so, given that he is a prisoner of war, a citizen of the camp, the nightmare situation of our own imperial time. It is, I think, a shock to see this British unit march whistling into a POW camp as if through friendly territory. In our present situation, one cannot imagine this scenario - reasoned discourse between two commanding officers, one prisoner, the other captor. We are of another era entirely: for us, the notion of diplomacy with enemies of the United States has become, it seems, unacceptable, while the horizon of our politics has undergone the shift proper to empire, such that we now speak of a world in which there can be no enemies. This is, to be sure, the world of the American poseur, who kills, lies, and fights for bare life without concern for the law.

In giving up the trappings of imperialism - distinctions based upon the binary civilized/savage - have we acceeded to empire? And if we cannot go back, how can we relate to our enemies without making of them the Other of human rights, whose skin is best maintained under the auspicies of empire? Is it that we must have human enemies who are nevertheless enemies? This is, I think, one of the movie's lessons. Kwai ends famously, with the destruction of the bridge and with the death of its creator, Guinness, who, turning to look upon his accomplishment with horror (realizing that in carrying out his orders he has aided the efforts of the Japanese), utters a stunned "What have I done?" and collapses upon the detanator, causing a very dramatic explosion to be had.

If empire is our lot, I can't help but think that to have survived its downfall, or made arrangements to carry on without it, is the best we can strive for. And whether they realize it or not, this is what lies at the end of Hardt and Negri, Deleuze and Guattari, and even Badiou: the way out of empire is to think after empire, to conceive of the carrying-on of politics beyond the assurances of our age. And this I find frightening indeed.

5 Comments:

Blogger Robot said...

Interesting thoughts, Kushakov. I have not read the Hardt, Negri, etc. that you refer to, but if I follow you correctly (I implore you to correct me if I have not) you have made a distinction between imperialism and empire. I think this is an absolutely necessary distinction to be made, but itĀ“s a complicated one. Different accounts of imperialism offer different ideas as to what it was and what it meant. Today, we can easily look back to the height of European imperialism (1884-1914 or so) and see it for what it was: a chiefly economic venture, sprouting from capitalismĀ“s need to expand beyond the nation-state boundaries -- to find new labor, new investments, etc. Empires, of course, pre-date capitalism. They pre-date the rise of the bourgeoisie. Surely economic reasons were behind ancient empires as well as Ottoman, Byzantine, etc. but modern imperialism was something different, because its main drivers had at their controls productive, geographic, violent, and speculative powers that these old empires did not possess.

So, getting back to this initial distinction -- I tried to get to the definition of at least one of the terms above -- do you think the United States practices imperalism in the modern sense, or are they an "empire"? What do you see as the difference between a modern empire, and a modern nation practicing imperialism? If these questions are way too broad, feel free to ignore them or answer however you might, or point me in some helpful direction.

12:12 PM  
Blogger The Sheriff said...

I might answer this question, although it is in fact a difficult one which I'm not sure that Hardt and Negri fully deal with. Empire as such is what H&N consider to be a new form of sovereignty, not central to any particular state or even collection thereof, but (and I'm going to use their theory-speak here) a new type of decentered biopolitical sovereignty. This is to say that where imperialism was definied by specific borders and distinctions (home country/colony, civilization/other, etc.) and was something of a heirarchical model of control, Empire proper is a more global 'state of the situation.' This is to say that Imperial (not imperialistic) sovereignty is something of a Foucauldian production of subjectivities and attitudes. Imperial control does not depend on a military apparatus or the like, but instead it is a matter of creating the ocnditions of possibility for the perpetuation of the Imperial system (which can be compared, not without damage to the concept, with globalized, multi-national capital etc.) Thus America is at the same time within Empire and engaging in (what might be thought of as atavistic and unneccessary)imperialistic practices. Imperialism is extensive, meaning it needs to extend or capitalize on boundaries (look at the effect of the closing of the frontiers on Rome) whereas Empire arises in part due to the total inclusion of all possible "outside," and so begins to become fully in-tensive. Granted, this is all a bit loopy sounding, but it in fact seems quite reasonable--look at the US 'democratizing mission'; most all of the arguments for the "New American Empire" are completely unsatisfying, if not for their own conceits than for the fact that a)American/"Coalition" activity in the ME can only be nominally equated with earlier Imperialistic tactics, and b) the focus of this new mission is the production of a particular ideology or subjectivity. The phrase "winning hearts and minds" demonstrates how particularly bio-political this type of activity is. I hope this helps...I've got more for kushakov's actual post later, but tired now...

7:15 PM  
Blogger kushakov said...

This imperial/imperialist distinction is, as robot says, a crucial one. I raised this issue with regard to Kwai because I thought it might be good to have a narrative situation to look at - something that is very clearly a representation, clearly fictional, and historically topical (WWII America, 1950s moviemaking, POW camps, etc). So while I hope t dwell here on robot's questions regarding empire, I refer back to the scene from Kwai where I can.

I've been thinking throughout the day about the difficulties inherent to making the imperialism/empire distinction an historical one. Namely, that the distinction is not at all historical - one cannot point to a particular event, or even to a continuum of events, as the cause of a paradigm shift. For me, the distinction is itself the event. One this note, I will say that the best point made in Hardt and Negri's "Empire" is this: that the protest movements of the 1960s in many ways spawned the imperial form of capitalism under which we currently labor. (Now that you know this, I would recommend reading only those parts of the book which catch the interest of your perversities, like the sex scenes in almost anything ever written - although I can't imagine what those scenes in "Empire" would be.)

It is disconcerting but not impossible to think that in the intellectual world, the logic of empire developed out of the the fall of imperialist thinking. One could argue that the empire was immanent within imperialism, and perhaps it was. As cultural historian Jacques Barzun recently reminded me (see his book "Darwin, Marx, Wagner"), the success of imperialism was largely coterminus with that of Darwinism. As we well know, many imperialist projects were carried out, or justified (to the extent that they required justification), under the banner of tooth and claw, and as a sign of the natural perfection of this or that brand of European male. (Our current Darwinism, the scientism we refer to as "science" rather than "sciences" (of medecine, of carpentry, of theoretical physics) is, I think, of a piece with the logic of empire.) No longer do we think of our relations with Others as coincident with natural selection. Rather, we conceive of the Other - and the Other within our selves, our identities, sexualities, genders, our consciousness - along purely biological lines. "I am only a slave" proclaims the American in Kwai. A slave, he is also the archetype of soldierdom as we now think it: an exercise in absurdity, by which young men are sent from eden towards pointless death, and all because of a Law too ridiculous to be believed in. The logic of the draft-dodger is, in a sense, the logic of empire. In this way we have lost the ability to understand those who enter the service out of duty to the flag, just as we have lost our taste for social Darwinism. For us, there is nothing more dreadful than biological death. And with this fear in mind, we extend to the Other, and to our enemies, the pittance which we have reserved for ourselves: the reign of life that is barely alive. This is what we call "security," I think. It is what we imagine for Iraq and the middle east. We have, I suppose, nothing left with which to civilize them.

9:02 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

There's a lot to wade through here, as new ideas appear in practically every sentence of every post, so I'll just point out a few things that leapt out at me:

Sheriff admits that this is "theory-speak," but the phrase "decentered biopolitical sovereignty" smacks of theory preceding fact, rather than being a deduction from the historical facts on the ground. "Decenteredness" is a facet of poststructuralist French theory talk, and "biopolitics" has all its usual Foucauldian connotations. Now, Foucault at least gave the appearance of deducing his theories of power from actual practices, as opposed to just asserting them as philosophical novelty (although NEVER underestimate philosophical novelty). Poststructuralism I see more as a theory of a particular interpretation of WRITING rather than as a description of the world in which we currently live (Derrida might disagree, on this point and on being lumped together with "poststructuralists," but grant me this one). While I appreciate the critiques which various theories of subjecthood have levied against traditional notions of the autonomous individual, they don't seem to me in the end to do any lasting violence to the individual, MUCH LESS the entire political sphere. So let's get real here: we know that Michael Hardt is a professor of literature. MIGHT NOT his theories (I confess I have not read them extensively) be a reflection of academic verbiage rather than a description of reality?

I say this because when an Iraqi sees US forces occupying her country, there's really no question as to WHO is doing the occupying. It's not some free-floating signifier, to say the least...Similarly, when the US State Department was putting out its Hi! Magazine propaganda, anyone with half a political conscience could see that this was not some Foucauldian "deployment of the techniques of power" that shaped consciousness independent of its origins and purpose, which had developed independent "webs" of power. No, this was US State Department propaganda. Even in more obscure cases, such as international capitalist business, it is normally pretty clear WHO is exporting these business interests and WHY.

Now, I'm not actually opposing the idea that there should be a distinction between imperialism (as in, colonialism) and modern-day empire. I am opposing the idea that modern-day empire represents not only a change in STRATEGIES used by the big powers, but a change in the NATURE of the big powers themselves, especially the idea that there may be no "big powers" left to speak of at all. This seems to me a fundamental methodological mistake, perpetrated not only by poststructuralists but perhaps also by world-systems analysts, indeed anyone who downplays the role of the traditional nation-state.

1:22 AM  
Blogger The Sheriff said...

Of course the stakes of empire aren't a bunch of signifiers, and of course there remain big powers, acting in imperialistic fashion; this is not in doubt even by Hardt and Negri, and I by no means intended to make my post sound otherwise (although I was a bit lax in my language). The decentered-ness of empire is part of a tendency, given credence by events and the 'real world,' even though it has not fully manifested (whatever that means). So at the same time as we see the US/UK/Whoever engaging in imperialistic actions, with clear instrumental and economic ramifications for themselves, we se the growth of new motivations for such interventions and a new ideology which butresses such police and secuurity actions. Empire has by no means replaced nation state sovereignty in toto, but we can see the tendencies of empire within the current nation state system as it becomes a unified ideological apparatus; the lines of traditional national and individual sovereignty are being superceded quite often by a new 'Imperial' type of economic domination, one which breaks away from particular nationalisms/particularisms towards a more 'holistic' type of capital. It's a tenuous but perhaps tenable thesis, and I'm far too far away from any of the material (physically and with regard to my memory) to provide a strong justification. I have to then say, Scantron, I think you're absolutely right, but I also don' tthink that Hardt and Negri are wrong or just playing the put-the-cart-before the horse theory game.

8:15 AM  

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