Music: Harold Budd: The Room
I have actually managed to write this week, and am taking a quick break from writing today. Today my goal is to finish explaining the concept of sovereignty, and to figure out how best to do it, for an essay on War of the Worlds. My pickle is this: I have in mind, first, the audience of Rhetoric and Public Affairs, a largely conservative journal that I’ve been rejected from four times. I like the editor (who is fiercely ethical and very fair), and respect the readers and editorial board. Now, I’m using just a teensy bit of Agamben’s State of Exception, which is quite complicated. To properly contextualize his work, I would have to discuss Foucault, biopolitics, and the critique of the sovereign; Schmitt; Walter Benjamin; and a host of other tendencies (e.g., does he abandon existential dialectics or embrace immanent modes of thinking . . . or both? [I think both are held in tension]). That audience will not go for it. So, I’m thinking, what if I sink a bunch of stuff in the footnotes, explain the sovereign first with Hobbes and then link to Schmitt and Agamben? I mean, my ugrad degree is in philosophy so I’m mildly versed in the basics of social contract philosophy and all that, but I cannot assume this is true of my (imagined) audience, can I? How much “teaching” do I do? Or do I just jump in, assume reader’s are familiar with the debates/issues revolving the sovereign, and . . . .
See. I should stop going back and forth, write, and see what comes out, yes? I think I’ll take that “let’s see what comes out” approach.
As a teaser, here’s the introduction to that essay. I’ve not got much more than this but a few paragraphs. Also, if any of my students are reading this blog, I have uploaded a scan of the original draft, so you can see the editing process (non-students: we’re talking about writing for publication in class a bit).
Ok, here goes:
Prepping Publics: Staging the State of Exception in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds
Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.–Psalms 8:2
After learning that Manhattan has been besieged by large, Tripod-driving invaders from another world, Ray Ferrier, a single divorcee and presumably a rotten father played by Tom Cruise, loads his two visiting children into a stolen mini-van and races toward Boston to escape life-zapping heat rays. As the final draft of the shooting script of Stephen Spielberg’s War of the Worlds details, approximately 31 minutes into the film, the not-so-subtle subtext comes out of the mouth of a babe:
. . . the kids begin SCREAMING, but it’s hard to hear over the racing engine, the SCREECHING tires. Ray leans forward, trying like hell to see through the windshield, through the smoke that’s now blanketing the block. THROUGH THE WINDSHEILD, we see he’s reaching the end of the block, which is a T intersection. Directly ahead of him is a bank of row houses. As we [the spectators] look at them-their second floors burst into flames . . . . BACK IN THE CAR, Ray cuts the wheel to the left. Robbie turns and looks out the back window, gets just a glimpse of the top of the Tripod as it rises up over the rooftops behind them. ROBBIE [the teenage son]: WHAT IS IT? RACHEL [the eleven-year-old daughter]: “Is it the terrorists?!”
The decision to explicitly reference the events of September 11, 2001 was Spielberg’s. In an interview with one of the two script writers, David Koepp explains that, owing to its theme of invasion, all iterations of the H.G. Well’s story have “vast political implications”: “In the late 1890s, it was about British imperialism; in the late 1930s, it was about the fear of Fascism; in the early 1950s, it was the Commies are coming to get us . . . .” Because spectators and critics would inevitably yoke the destruction of the film to the destruction of the World Trade Center, implies Koepp, “we just decided not to censor ourselves, because that’s not realistic, that’s not the world we live in.” Says Koepp:
As for specific 9/11 references-like Dakota’s [Fanning] character [Rachel] saying, “Is it the terrorists?” or when Tom [Cruise] is covered in ash-those weren’t put in because of 9/11; they were put in because we all lived through 9/11. . . . In the first draft Dakota didn’t have that line, but Steven said, “Wouldn’t she think it’s the terrorists?” And I said, “Well, yeah, but do we really want to evoke that, do we want to come out and say it?” And he said, “But she would, she’s 11.” And it’s true, she would. So she did.
Spielberg’s insistence that an innocent yet precocious child explicitly establish the relation between that bloodthirsty, exogenous evil from beyond and the staple enemy of our current contemporary, political discourse confounds the often printed sentiment that War of the Worlds is a “piece of perfectly realized, pure entertainment.”iii Unquestionably, as the scriptwriters admit, War of the Worlds enacts a politics that extends beyond the screen. As Barbara Biesecker has persuasively argued of Saving Private Ryan
, this politics bespeaks a nostalgic reclamation and resignification of World War II in contemporary discourse, a trend continued by the deliberate if awkwardly anachronistic, 1950s aesthetic of War of the Worlds.
Biesecker argues that Spielberg’s spectacles over the past decade have buttressed a well-worn “American” identity, forwarding a patriarchical, civil pedagogy of complacency as the answer to the anomie and chaos signified by “meticulously chronicled mass slaughter.” Insofar as the “civic lesson” intoned by Saving Private Ryan
in the wake of bloody spectacle assists in the “reconsolidation and naturalization of traditional logics and matrices of privilege,” we should expect a similar, violence-then-lesson progression in War of the Worlds. In Spielberg’s films, the event of filmic violence usually heralds a tutorial in civic or familial virtue.
Of course, ideological interpellation is rarely straightforward, and consequently we should be suspicious of the ostensible lesson offered by any popular text-from the bromides that conclude televised situation comedies to the Faustian injunctions of science fiction films. Not surprisingly, many critics were suspicious of the War of the Worlds, which was almost universally criticized for the implausible and unsatisfying moralizing that concludes the film. After a relentless parade of horrific chase scenes, “numbing portrayals of social collapse and chilling references to 9/11,” the story is resolved with a paean to passionate parenting: “when it’s time to protect his kids, Ray is a great dad.” The film ends when Ray and his daughter are joyfully reunited with his son and ex-wife at the Boston home of the former in-laws. In part, this ending was panned because it is emotionally unfair: Spielberg asks audiences to open a would by surfacing the memories of the real trauma that concentrates U.S. political discourse, but fails to close it by rigorously keeping the narrative apolitical. As Stuart Klawans suggests, the rather cloying conclusion in Thanksgiving-style homecoming, particularly after excruciating “eruptions of violence, which in length and intensity surpass all expectation,” points to a blind spot in Spielberg’s vision. The director’s refusal to see himself as the source of ecstatic violence without reason or political import, Klawans argues, “deserves our attention,” because “this refusal of self-knowledge” is homologous to other “daily silences-the newscasts that don’t reckon up the war dead, for example, or the conversations where people won’t call incipient fascism by its name.” The critic suggests that it is as if the filmmaker threw a violently spectacular temper tantrum with “vast political implications” that are abruptly abandoned in favor of teaching us that father knows best. This disjuncture or contradiction in both the narrative and the emotional experience of the spectator is a symptom of a deeper ideological labor.
In this essay I argue that the civil pedagogy of War of the Worlds is, in fact, that father knows best, but only insofar as the father is understood as the absent patriarchical sovereign–the strong, seemingly omnipotent political figure that fails to appear within the filmic frame. “If films are to a large extent public dreams,” as Janice Hocker Rushing and Thomas S. Frentz have argued, then War of the Worlds is a nightmare registering the fears and longings of a public besieged by “terrorists” less than five years ago. Although Spielberg intends an obvious lesson in paternal responsibility, I argue that in trying to answer the question, “what is a father?” via the trauma of 9/11, War of the Worlds ends up encouraging the spectator to yield to the figure of a dictator. Because of its relentless scenes of violence, few films in recent memory are as successful in creating a feeling of prolonged dread, fueling a profound desire for the fictional State to enter the scene and protect its citizenry. Within diegetic space of the film, however, the sovereign never arrives, and responsibility recoils to the family father to provide a sense of safety, however precarious. Within the larger, cultural context of contemporary political events, however, this fictional figure is metonymy for a real world, political sovereign who has the power to ignore the law as well as the power to protect us from an exogenous threat. In short, I argue War of the Worlds, however unwittingly, is a lesson in desiring fascism.