Thursday, October 16, 2008

Iron Man, Batman, The Knockaround Guys, and Badiou

"Iron Man" tells up a lot about ourselves. It is the true to life version of the Seinfeldian notion of a show about nothing. Everything in the film is like a soft stroke of the audience, or what the producers, marketers and director of the film collectively believe to be the audience. It is like an empty space of non-controversial archetypes in which we can sit and look at the pretty people and machines.

In fact I would prefer to use the term "feely" when writing of this film. I think Huxley would agree with me that American cinema has reached the status of the "feelies" of "Brave New World". "Iron Man" is one of the many feelies one could categorize under "this film intentionally left blank". Every element, every scene was like a serotonin booster. The opening shot of the dusty HUMVEES bouncing through the desert, the young intrepid, shy and polite soldiers rollicking along to their doom listening to AC/DC. The brash bazillionare flouting common sense and thoughts of his own safety by joining our brave young men and women, and at great personal risk to himself no less, so that he could glad hand the crowd like a British Imperial Prince visiting an Indian colony 200 years ago.

Ah, the new royalty and their counterparts: Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark and the evil nemeses that want to steal from them what they have rightfully inherited by their completely arbitrary birth into the proper family. I would like to add to this mix the opposing two forces from "Knockaround Guys". For those of you who haven't seen it John Malkovich plays a second in command mob lieutenant who has the audacity to try and make a play for control of the "criminal" organization he has spent his entire life helping to build.

Like the bad guys in all three of these movies Malkovich is pitted against the scion of the family with whom the audience should immediately identify. I did. Without enumerating the ridiculous, stereotypical and lampoonish appearances of all the villains in these films, suffice it to say they all were obviously the bad guy from the moment they appeared on the screen. Jeff Bridges even has the bald head and long beard of a fiery anti-American cleric.

In each film the evil number two is vanquished and the heroic young man assumes the helm of his fathers Imperial Administration and continues to keep the world one cunt hair away from annihilation by the Other.

This is the empty space. The tacit understanding that a son has the right to inherit his fathers wealth regardless of how that wealth was obtained. The beauty of a movie like "Iron Man" is it brings into such stark (no pun intended) relief the things we take for granted in human culture. Howard Stark's company makes weapons, they have grown rich on the systematic and mechanized killing of human beings. But there is absolutely no hint from the director of the film that this is in any way controversial.

Tony Stark does not hold a press conference to say :"I hereby relenquish control of my fathers estate because it represents more collective death than Iraq, Afghanistran, Viet Nam, WWII, Rwanda, Armenian massacre, Katyn Forest, Gulags, Auschwitz, Treblinka, and (Insert massive human death event here) combined". No, Tony's brilliant insight is that his weapons are not being used exclusively by the Imperial overlords for whom they were created at great cost to the taxpayer. The other team has our playbook, now it's time for a moment of Zen reflection.

What a douche. This is our hero? I have to say I thought of none of this while watching the film, I was too busy admiring the shiny red iron man suit and the Jericho missile and I didn't see the empty space either.

So we live in a culture where the bad guy is the one who works all his life not only at the beck and call of the head of the company but also dealing with the ever present threat that his position will be filled by the up and coming young hoodlum whose antics he is also responsible for keeping in check.

Now I'm not just saying this because Malkovich is my favorite actor, and that's not just because he is bald like me either, but wouldn't it be cool to live in a world where Malkovich, and Rutger Hauer and Jeff Bridges were the heroes of these respective movies?

The young punk who is getting blown by $1000 whores from the time he is 13 who has more than likely never read a book in his life and would have extreme difficulty preparing a meal for himself and his family gets nothing but a minimum wage job sweeping the factory floor and the number two guy takes over after years of hard work and chafing under the ineptitude of his superior. In the sequel the young scion turned janitor graduates a night business course and gets a low paying administrative position through a temp agency so that no favoritism is suspected.

This brings me to ethics and Badiou. In my understanding of Badiou the very idea of good and evil, the notion of combating evil, is in itself the source of Evil in the world. The most clear example is Nazism, the Jew is characterized as evil, usurious, sexually deviant and then the whole country stands around listening to Heideggar and reading Kant and Hegel while the Jews are shipped to death camps round the clock.

Once they got the ball rolling with Jews the gypsies, Catholics, homosexuals and generally anybody that needed to be killed followed suit without a peep from the populace. I'm certainly not casting any stones, I'm not standing on the White House lawn with a sign demanding the release of who knows how many secret Guantanamos there are on this planet. The American's that thought they would rise up against their government if they lived during the Holocaust are all playing Xbox and eating Cheeto's while their own government does much worse.

But this is exactly my point, we have all been conditioned to believe that there are human beings capable of determining what is evil and they are justified in using force to prevent that evil. Once someone or some group is 'evil' they are outside the bounds of the law, they do not exist. As Zizek pointed out about Rumsfeld and Cheney commenting on the torture of detainees, the terrifying part isn't the existence of prisons where the enemy is tortured, these of course exist in every conflict, the terrifying part is the open dialog from the highest government officials discussing the pros and cons of such an approach. The French at least had the decency to keep the Algerian torture chambers secret, and if not entirely secret they weren't on the talk shows discussing their inner workings, debating the finer points of waterboarding and sleep deprivation as if discussing the merits of a choice in fabric for the White House drapes.

Terror is commonplace now, it is even official government policy and this is hardly even controversial any more. We have been conditioned quite well.

The long eye of history is much more accurate than our own distorted, culturally conditioned perception of our own time. In ancient Greece it was common for a young boys first sexual experience to be with an older man. This was considered part of normal sexual development and once the young man reached a certain age he was expected to "progress" to women, marry and have children. Regardless of ones feelings on the merits or evil of such a policy one must agree that this is not socially or legally accepted now. But Greek democracy is certainly an important element of that civilization which is held up as a great idea.

So if societal norms can be defined by culture then it is not completely implausible that other norms which seem like part of the "empty space", the neutral ground we occupy are also culturally defined.

"Thou shalt not kill"

A relatively common tenet of religion, yet statistics show a staggering number of deaths in the course of human history are the result of wars between religious sects, usually both of whom hod as a fundamental premise "thou shalt not kill". All you Zen Buddhists don't think you are exempt, Imperial Japan, kamikaze, samurai, domination of entire cultures, done by a bunch of guys that burned incense and meditated on death every day. see "The Hagakure".

Without placing any value judgment on these cultures let us simply examine the source of all the death. One might agree that if a large part of the killing (to be more specific than death) in a culture is philosophically rooted in "ethics" one may begin to question the value of such an ethics. Especially since any ethical system manifesting itself as a religion or political movement today has as its underpinnings the command "thou shalt not kill".

The US Criminal Code has some pretty specific injunctions against killing. Yet one might argue that a prohibition against killing, which makes no exceptions, would make the construction and maintenance of millions of killing devices, including human beings specifically and methodically trained for that purpose, unnecessary.

We may scoff and say "of course we must have an army" but this brings us not to question the necessity of an army but a larger question: if way may all agree that killing is necessary in human culture why do all our ethical (as manifested by legal) systems forbid it?

Why does not the law specifically enumerate the conditions under which a human being may be killed. Capital punishment exists yes, but as a very specific case for one individual. There are no provisions in US law for mass killing, aerial bombardment, etc. Does this legality derive from the President's War Powers? If so should the President be given a specific exemption from the US Criminal Code, is he personally responsible for the deaths that occur during war as the leader of the Tribe.

Our ethics are lying to us, telling us things that we know cannot possibly be true.

"Though shalt not steal"

Also encoded in many ways in law everywhere. But the entire definition of this law resides in the meaning of the word "steal". My image is immediately of myself putting food in my pocket or backpack in a grocery store when I am stealing something to eat.
But this is of course a conditioned response. Shouldn't I imagine something larger, Portugese in Brazil, Spaniards in Mexico, Russians in Afghanistan, British in the Middle east. If one culture can appropriate all the resources from another and subjugate the entire population under laws that still exist can I really think that "steal" has anything to do with my microwavable Uno's pizza (highly recommended meal when your only means on cooking is a university microwave).

If our entire culture is built on stolen land, stolen, labor, and raw materials it seems odd that an injunction against stealing is part of our legal and moral education.

But then we realize a silent law to which we have grown accustom since childhood and which is contained in hidden form in many sayings and proverbs: What is a crime for an individual is normal behavior for a collective.

If one man kills one man there is a trial, a great public outcry, a dramatic sentencing of the (usually by now) repentant criminal who then goes to prison and studies Islam or Christianity or some other form of ethics and transforms himself into a good cog in the system.

If the Georgian Army massacres a bunch of civilians and then the Russian Army massacres a bunch of Georgians, and on the same day 20 road side bombs go off and a stray bomb hits a school in Afghanistan our moral sensibilities are not offended.

This brings me to another element of "Iron Man" that makes it a great cultural barometer. Jeff Bridges is a bad guy in "Iron Man" partly because he tries to have Tony killed, locked out of his company etc. but his big transgression is his sale of weapons to the "terrorists". These are the same guys who killed all our boys in the first scene, the embodiment of evil, torturers, dumb cavemen who need the expertise of a 30 year old MIT grad to make a weapon. (These are supposedly the same people that when confronted by weapons shortages defeated the Soviet Empire by dropping rocks on the helicopter blades of attack helicopters when they flew through canyons. If one of Tony Stark's hot rods broke down back home any one of those guys could probably fix it faster than his mechanic and they need him to build them sonething, at least ransoming him would have been more realistic). Jeff Bridges sells these "terrorists" weapons. He gives the super advanced technology that is the backbone of US domination of the Other to the Other and for this he is labeled evil.

I think another one of Jeff Bridges characters, The Big Lebowski, would have approved of this action. "This aggression will not stand man". If you are at war you better expect that the other side is going to fight you with every thing they can get, the fact that this bothers us so much is another huge conflict within our ethical system.

There are those who are allowed to possess and use weapons of mass destruction, like the ones used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and those who may not. If Iran and North Korea and Venezuela and Libya and Hezbollah and Al Queda all had nukes everyone would have to play by the rules. If you are an American or European your government is protecting you from that world. Or are they simply preventing a world in which the maxim "all men are created equal" actually means something. Western Civilization has been holding all the cards for a long time, our rules are the only rules that mattered. We decide who is evil and must be destroyed and funnel large amounts of our populations resources into carrying out that destruction. What happens when we're not making the rules any more. Better hope whoever is in charge next doesn't decide we are evil.

Let's hope that evil really is just a social construct.

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