Music: Harold Budd: Abandoned Cities (1982)
Today I finished drafting the War of the Worlds essay; why it took me over a year I am uncertain. Maybe it is because I had a move to Texas and start a new job and then had some romantic set-backs; maybe it is because a little navel-gazing got in the way (that navel comment was for you, E!). I’m not quite sure where to send it, yet, but it’s got much work to be done on it so I suppose I have time to figure it out.
This Saturday it is a bit gloomy outside, but that is the perfect weather to write in. Today is the last day devoted to my work; tomorrow and all of next week I begin to review essays for journals and to read and start composing respondent remarks for our big hoo-hah conference in San Antonio a week from Wednesday. I am not ready for that circus at all.
I have a gathering with friends (and a lover) tonight to look forward too. Yay! Anyhoot, here’s the rest of it. As always, comments welcome but not requested (it’s my scholarly navel and I’ll gaze if I want to):
The Third Term Refigured: On Paternal Sovereignty
What is A Paternal Sovereign?
It is obvious that a soldier takes his superior, that is, in fact, the leader of the arm, as his ideal, while he identifies himself with his equals, and derives from this community of their egos the obligations for giving mutual help and for sharing possessions which comradeship implies.
From a psychoanalytic standpoint, thus far I have suggested that the figure of the sovereign is an imaginary representation of the symbolic father who embodies two functions that are often in tension: the function of protection and the function of prohibition. From a historical and political standpoint, however, most individuals understand this figure in terms of the monarch, the autocrat, or simply “the dictator.” In dictatorial regimes, the sovereign is the one who has the power to decide who counts as a human being worthy of consideration (e.g., of citizenship) and who is expendable. In light of Rousseau’s theory of the social contract, of course, War of the Worlds is merely one of many Western fantasies that collapse the father and the sovereign at the level of function; in fact, such a collapse into a singular figure has a name. In the philosophical tradition, the political leader and symbolic father converge in the notion of the “paternal sovereign,” a concept first and most famously advanced as the “philosopher king” in Plato’s Republic and continued in Hobbes’ Leviathan. The explicit paternal sovereign is, of course, ubiquitous in Hollywood film: from the Gandolph or “white wizard” character in the Lord of the Rings trilogy to the President of the United States in countless disaster films, the imago or fantasy figure of the paternal sovereign is not difficult to locate.
What is troublesome about the imago of the paternal sovereign is that, more often than not, he is portrayed as benevolent. Perhaps because he is usually explicitly parternal, rarely is his absolute power of discernment questioned in Western fantasy. As a representative of the paternal sovereign in War of the Worlds, for example, Ray’s murder of Ogilvy is excruciating but ultimately justifiable, insofar as he is the only figure with the power of judgment in an undeniably exceptional state. For Agamben, what is troublesome about the legislative power of the paternal sovereign in such states is that it rests on an essentialist understanding of human being and nature that artificially objectifies people into “bare life,” and which often leads capricious abuse. For Agamben, sovereignty as such rests on a biopolitical fracture that results in the real death of human beings.
Unlike Hobbes, Rousseau, or Schmitt, Agamben’s understanding of human being is anti-essentialist and anti-identitarian, which leads him to argue against the idea of sovereignty itself on the basis of what some might term an immanent ontology of potentiality. Space limits discussing this ontology in any detail, however, a brief sketch helps to illustrate how the paternal sovereign gets caught up legislating life itself. In much of his recent work Agamben advances an understanding of human being as an existential potentiality, abandoning the essentialism of “human nature” and the logocentric notion of identity that informs it. Human being is to be understood as “the single ways, acts, and processes of living” that are only possibilities, never determined or given in advance.
Each behavior and each form of human living is never prescribed by a specific biological vocation, nor is it assigned by whatever necessity; instead, no matter how customary, repeated, an d socially compulsory, it always retains the character of possibility; that is, it always puts at stake living itself. That is why human beings-as beings of power who can do or not do, succeed or fail, lose themselves or find themselves-are the only beings for who happiness is always at stake in their living, the only beings whose life is irremediably and painfully assigned to happiness.
In a qualified sense, one might characterize Agamben’s understanding of human being as being on this (left) side Rousseau, except that for Agamben the sovereign is always involved in a kind of slight-of-hand that threatens human being in the name of protecting it. “Political power,” says Agamben, “founds itself—in the last instance—on the separation of a sphere of naked life from the context of the forms of life,” thereby cleaving human content and form, as it were, or eroding what philosophers have dubbed “the good life.” The content, or “naked life” (zoe), and the form, or “the manner of living peculiar to a single individual or group” (bios) are separated by the paternal sovereign, who establishes his or its power by meting biological and political death. The power to mete life and death can only be established if one has the power to define life, or rather, to determine what constitutes a valuable life. Sovereignty necessarily entails the exclusion of some lives in the creation of “the People” or the polis itself. Agamben suggests that excluding is the function of the modern sovereign: he decides what lives are worth living (e.g., citizenship) and what lives are merely bare or naked lives and therefore dispensable. Consequently, “a political life, that is, a life directed toward the idea of happiness and cohesive with a form of life,” argues Agamben, “is thinkable only starting from the emancipation from such a division, with the irrevocable exodus from any sovereignty.”
Whether or not one believes that an exodus from contemporary sovereignty is possible (or as Hardt and Negri would have it, inevitable), we know from history that an ideology of paternal sovereignty is problematic because it promotes the concentration of political power into a single figure or leader who asserts the right to murder others in terms of a “natural” or “elected” mandate. If the sovereign is the one who “decides on the state of exception,” as Schmitt argues, then the paternal sovereign is the one who decides who is and is not worthy of life in such a state as well in the name of protection. What is unclear in Agamben’s discussion of sovereignty is how such a figure comes to power: why do people accept a paternal sovereign? Or put alternately: what is the appeal of the dictator and demagogue? With a little help from Freud, I think that War of the Worlds helps us to understand better the appeal of the paternal sovereign “in real life.” As a sensurround experience in the theatre, I argue that War of the Worlds attempts to (re)create the kind of feelings that lead to an acceptance of a strong, paternal sovereign.
In his lesser known later works, such as Totem and Taboo and Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, Freud set forth a theory of group behavior and leadership that Mark Edmundson argues anticipated the most infamous paternal sovereign in recent history—Adolph Hitler. Arguing that groups or communities behave in a manner that is analogous to the individual psyche, Freud’s theory of political leadership begins with the assumption that groups are only sustained over the long term by strong leaders. Downplaying the theory advanced by Gustave Le Bon that “crowds” function somewhat autonomously with a collective mind, Freud argued that most significant communities and groups persisted only to the degree they have a powerful leader that inspired the transference (that is, the misattribution of feelings about an early, childhood relationship with a parental figure to a leader). Freud suggested that strong, paternalistic leaders come to stand-in for the superego, which is that aspect of the individual psyche that functions as a social authority (essentially, the internalized, prohibitive function first represented by the symbolic father). Moreover, leaders come to occupy the place of the superego in a demonstrably erotic manner that helps to quell, however, temporarily, a default psychic discomfort that every self-conscious subject experiences.
For Freud, the individual psyche is conflicted between the demands of society (the superego) and human drives and desires, which the “ego” ceaselessly mediates. Edmundson elegantly explains that
Humanity, Freud says, has come up with many different solutions to the problem of internal conflict and the pain it inevitably brings. Most of these solutions, Freud thinks, are best described as forms of intoxication. What the intoxicants in question generally do is revise the superego to make it more bearable. . . . Falling in love . . . has a similar effect [to drinking wine]. Love-romantic love, the full-out passionate variety-allows the ego to be dominated by the wishes and judgment of the beloved, not by [the superego]. The beloved supplants the over-I [superego] . . . and sheds glorious approval on the beloved and so creates a feeling of almost magical well-being. Take a drink (or two), take a lover, and suddenly the internal conflict in the psyche calms down. A divided being becomes whole, united, and (temporarily) happier one.
Consequently, Freud argued that “love relationships” constitute a group and make it cohere by revising individual superegos. These relations, however, necessarily need an individual or person who has the power to recognize them or the crowd will disperse. For example, Freud argues that the two “artificial groups” of the church and army are held together by the “illusion” of “equal love” from the “Catholic-Church-Christ” or the “Commander-In-Chief” alike. The story here is that a paternal figure comes to power by standing-in for the individual superego via love. The leader remains in power, Freud suggests, insofar as s/he is able to permit some transgressions that were previously prohibited by the individual superego. For example, “as the Nazis arrived in Vienna,” explains Edmundson, “many gentile Viennese, who had apparently been tolerant, turned on their Jewish neighbors” by trashing their businesses and looting their homes. “And they did all this with a sense of righteous conviction-they were operating in accord with the new cultural superego . . . Adolph Hitler.” In this sense, the paternal sovereign is a desiring valve for the group, and the pain of the individual fractured psyches is resolved-at least temporarily-in (bad) love. Freud’s answer to the question, “why do people come to accept a dictator?” is simply that they love him. Members of a group led by a paternal leader participate in, and enjoy, the exclusion of others from His loving recognition.
Freud’s theory of group psychology helps to explain why a film like War of the Worlds participates in the erotic economy of the contemporary political scene: after seemingly countless images of destruction, the character of Ray-played by well known “hunk” Tom Cruise-emerges as the love object and, eventually, the paternal sovereign. The feelings of yearning and love, as well as the adrenaline rush, inspired by the “action” and violence of War of the Worlds are scopophelic and directly related to the “ideological apparatus” of the cinema itself, which is why film in general has such a powerful, emotional effect on spectators. A number of film scholars have argued that cinema functions in an analogous manner to temporarily quell and “make whole” the psyche of the subject. Laura Mulvey has famously argued, for example, that film achieves this false sense of harmony through the spectator’s primary identification with the camera and the secondary identification with the filmic protagonist-both of which are culturally coded male.22 Film watching is thus a catalyst for love or feelings of pleasure, and the temporary “release” from self-consciousness it affords is one of the reasons why moviegoers love their celebrities: the star system functions in a manner analogous to the political system, providing publics with a series of intoxicating love objects. It is for this reason, in part, that politically mindful films-or films that purport to capture “real history” in a fantastic way-have been especially troubling to film scholars, who have worried since the beginning of cinema studies about the narcotizing and propagandistic uses of film in the service of state interests (e.g., Triumph of the Will, Why We Fight, and so on).
What is particularly powerful about the ideological promotion of paternal sovereignty in War of the Worlds, then, is the emotional effect of its familial fantasy (which inspires the love of a father figure), its unrelenting violence (which overdetermines the yearning for a sovereign), and the “suturing” of the movie-going experience itself. The ideological effect and affect of the film is not simply reducible to the plot, which promotes an essentialist view of human nature as fundamentally “ugly,” nor is it reducible to its tacit call for a sovereign to save the world. What is noteworthy about the War of the Worlds is the way in which the spectator is made to feel helpless in the service of these plot features: the State fails at every turn, and the spectator is forced to see Ray as the only figure of hope. Ray asserts the state of exception at every critical turn in the plot, and the spectator is caused to love him. As Freud helps to explain, the spectator learns to fall in love with Ray as the protagonist, not simply because this is what protagonists in general are for, but because War of the Worlds is so bleak in its outlook, because there is no alternative in the violent, chaotic diagetic frame. If War of the Worlds can be said to promote an ideology of paternal sovereignty based on an essentialist view of human nature, then the film is no mere story, but a powerful fantasy that is constitutive of our contemporary political and social realities. However unwittingly, I conclude by suggesting that War of the Worlds helps to explain why a large number of United States citizens supported the unprecedented sovereign power of George W. Bush.
Concluding Remarks: Cruising Bush
Americans love their masters not simply in spite of their frailties but because of them.
In this essay I have argued that War of the Worlds tacitly promulgates the ideology of paternal sovereignty through its negotiation of the father figure. Insofar as (1) War of the Worlds deliberately recalls the events of September 11, 2001; and (2) negotiates the anxieties of the symbolic father explicitly in terms of the imaginary father and implicitly in respect to the paternal sovereign, I suggested that War of the Words directly intervenes and participates in contemporary social and political realities.
To this end I suggested that the film is about sovereignty because it re-stages a state of nature and because the paternal protagonist of the film is an imaginary representation of the figure of sovereign. Consulting Lacan, I suggested that the imaginary father and the imago of the paternal sovereign are convergent representations of the symbolic father, a function or position of protection and prohibition. Consulting Agamben and Schmitt on contemporary sovereignty, I then detailed the grave consequences of the brand of paternal sovereignty promoted by the film. Finally, consulting Freud, I described how the cinematic experience of War of the Worlds interpellates the spectator emotionally by inspiring feelings of love for the paternal sovereign. I want to close by suggesting that a viewing of War of the Worlds can help to explain why powerful–arguably dictatorial–leaders such as George W. Bush continue to find support from U.S. citizens.
First, a word on Bush as the paternal sovereign: as a number of scholars have commented, the conception of the sovereign as (1) the one who can assert the state of exception, and as (2) the one who decides what is and is not valuable life in the name of protection is easily illustrated by contemporary political and legal events. At the time of this writing, the most recent and familiar assertion of sovereignty in this Schmittian/Hobbsian vein was Bush’s “military order” on November 13, 2001 that authorized the indefinite detention of suspected “terrorists” at prison camps in Guantánamo Bay. After Nine-eleven, the Bush administration has repeatedly declared that the country is in a state of emergency (or in a “war on terror”) and has asserted that many of the controversial practices of the military and other government bodies (e.g., wire tapping, torture, and so on) are exceptions to the rule of law. Agamben argues that these more recent, post-9/11 assertions of sovereignty are problematic-indeed, dire-for two reasons. First, they reflect a dark view of human nature as fundamentally dangerous or “evil,” which contributes the dehumanization and destruction of others as “terrorists.” War of the Worlds‘ many traumatic scenes-most especially the brutal carjacking and the murder of Ogilvy-reflect this view; as wave after wave of the “evil” alien Other decimates throngs of humans, the spectator is made to yearn more strongly for their decimation as well. Although the aggressive feelings inspired by the film concern either computer generated monsters or over-acting extras, these are the same feelings that have been promoted in Bush’s post Nine-eleven speechcraft: feelings of survival and vengeance. Second, such assertions of sovereignty are symptomatic of a troubling political trend first noted by Walter Benjamin in the wake of the first total war and in the shadow of the second: “the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule,” meaning that the norm has collapsed into the exception, thereby tempting atrocity. When a paternal sovereign asserts a continual and never-ending state of exception, argues Agamben, “when the state of emergency becomes the rule,” as War of the Worlds demonstrates so well, then “the political system transforms into an apparatus of death.”32 Inasmuch as War of the Worlds promotes a disturbing ideology of paternal sovereignty, it always serves as a commentary on contemporary political affairs. The film may also serve as a warning.
Whatever one’s personal, political beliefs, it is clear that the international community thinks that George W. Bush has abused his sovereign power in the so-called war on terror. In a 2006 poll conducted last November by the British newspaper The Guardian, the United States is “now seen as a threat to world peace by its closest neighbors and allies.” The poll report concludes that “British voters see George Bush as a greater danger to world peace than either North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, or the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.” These opinions are not new, since the descriptions of Bush as a “dictator” and “demagogue” surfaced long before public attitudes about the war in Iraq began to sour significantly in 2005; criticisms of his cowboy, go-it-alone style of foreign policy were widely known before the 2004 election. In light of these blunt criticisms of the president, the question many have asked is “why?” Why was a leader roundly criticized as dictatorial, hard-headed, and intellectually limited re-elected to office? Why do people still support George W. Bush?
Many pollsters and scholars have responded to the “why?” question by arguing that a large part of the answer is Bush’s “war on terror.” Echoing the opinion of a number of commentators and scholars, Peter Hart, a well-known public opinion research analyst, argues that the threat of terrorism decisively won Bush the election in 2004. What few have discussed, however, is the emotional economy set into motion by the “war on terror” and the central role of Bush as a father figure who inspires feelings of love: as Freud said of group leaders in general, Bush’s continued success among a certain public has to do with his ability to refashion the superego such that previously impermissible acts-such as torture, wars of aggression, phone-tapping, and so on-become permissible as a consequence of a new, exceptional state of affairs. In Bush’s case, however, the model cannot be said to resemble the more recent, historical past. Whereas strong, dictatorial leaders of the World War II era represent a flawless sovereign, a political creature of absolute autonomy impervious to critique, even those who continue to support Bush are cognizant of his many shortcomings. The persistence of Bush is only explained by the way in which he inspires love in spite of his impotence, and in this sense the arc of the Bush presidency closely models that of War of the Worlds‘ plot: Like Ray, the Bush presidency began with the theme of “deadbeat”; Bush’s meteoric rise to popularity was a direct consequence of Nine-eleven and the feelings of desperation and impending catastrophe catalyzed by the death of thousands. War of the Worlds not only replicates the feelings of Nine-eleven, but also uncannily tracks the narrative trajectory of George W. Bush’s rise to popularity as a paternal sovereign. Such a homology implicates what Lacanian critic Joan Copjec has termed the “unvermögender Other”-the impotent father or daddy without means-as more central to the patriarchal sovereign of contemporary American political fantasy than Freud’s ideal, unassailable dictator. The reason the spectator falls in love with Tom Cruise’s character in War of the Worlds is because Ray protects his children and comes to adopt the position of the symbolic father, the supreme protector and legislator, despite innumerable shortcomings and failures.37 Similarly, our sitting president was party to the same fantasy, moving from “bad” father toward the achievement of good parenting: when it’s time to protect his people, George is a great dad! If one wants to understand why George W. Bush continues to garner support as a paternal sovereign, she needs to see War of the Worlds and reflect on what she feels about Ray.
13 Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, trans. James Strachey (New York: W.W. Norton, 1959), 85.
14 Plato, The Republic of Plato, trans. Francis MacDonald Cornford (New York: Oxford University Press, 1945), 189-193.
15 Giorgio Agamben, “Form-of-Life,” translated by Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino, in Means Without End: Notes on Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 4.
16 Agamben, “Form-of-Life,” 4-8.
17 Mark Edmundson. “Freud and the Fundamentalist Urge.” The New York Times, 30 April 2006; available http:// http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/30/magazine/30wwln_lede.html accessed 30 April 2006.
18 Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, trans. James Strachey (New York: W.W. Norton, 1959), 1.
19 Edmundson, “Freud,” par. 7.
20 Edmundson, “Freud,” par. 8.
21 I am thinking in particular of Jean-Louis Baudry’s theory of the “cinematic apparatus.” See Teresa de Lauretis and Stephen Heath, eds. The Cinematic Apparatus (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980).
22 See Laura Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures (London: Macmillan, 1989).
23 See, for example, F.R. Leavis, Mass Civilisation and Minority Culture (Cambridge: The Minority Press, 1930).
24 See Kaja Silverman, The Subject of Semiotics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 194-236.
25 In an interview with Rob Feld, David Koep is asked: “as long as everything’s pretty much copasetic, we’re okay. But as soon as we get scared, or threatened, or something’s being taken from us”-DK: “Yeah-we get ugly. . . . We were in a story meeting one day, when I was maybe halfway though the War of the Worlds script. I had show the first have to Steven [Spielberg] and he said: ‘I want you to remember, though, that in times of great disaster . . . it does tend to bring out the best in people . . . . I said, ‘Yes, you’re absolutely right,’ and went home and wrote the carjacking scene, where it’s as ugly as ugly gets. In part, because I’m still a teenager and I have to rebel against Dad, but also because [I am not optimistic like Spielberg].” Friedmann and Koepp, War of the Worlds, 150.
26 Joan Copjec, Read My Desire: Lacan Against the Historicists (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994), 149.
27 Moreover, Alan Wolfe argues that ” Schmitt’s way of thinking about politics pervades the contemporary zeitgeist in which Republican conservatism has flourished, often in ways so prescient as to be eerie. See Alan Wolfe, “A Fascist Philosopher Helps Us Understand Contemporary Politics,” The Chronicle Review 2 April 2004, available at http://chronicle.com/free/v50/i30/30b01601.htm accessed 18 February 2006.
28 See Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, translated by Kevin Attell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 3-4.
29 The many legal transgressions of the United States government are detailed in the most recent report issued by the United Nations. See United Nations Economic and Social Council, Commission on Human Rights, Situation of Detainees at Guantanamo Bay, 62 sess., 15 February 2006. Doc. E.CN.4.2006.120.
30 For Hobbes, human “evil” reduced to what we might term survival instincts-the animality of human being. For Schmitt, the fundamental “evilness” of human being is neither our animality nor our capacity to do harm to others, but rather, a fundamental tendency to scapegoat the other, or to define “us” in distinction to “them,” that which Jacques Derrida terms “logocentrism.” In politics, this is the irreducible logic of “friend” and “enemy” central to Schmitt’s concept of the political. See Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, translated by George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), esp. 25-37. For a sustained critique of this logic at work outside of the political, see Richard Kearney, Strangers, Gods, and Monsters: Interpreting Otherness (New York: Routledge, 2003).
31 Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” translated by Edmund Jephcott. In Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 4, 1938-1940, edited by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 392.
32 Giorgio Agamben, “The State of Emergency,” lecture given at the Centre Roland-Barthes at the University of Paris VII, Denis-Diderot, Generation-Online.org, available http://www.generation-online.org/p/fpagambenschmitt.htm accessed 11 February 2006, par. 26.
33 Julian Glover, “British Believe Bush is More Dangerous Than Kim Jong-il, The Guardian (3 November 2006); available http://www.guardian.co.uk/usa/story/0,,1938434,00.html accessed 4 November 2006, par. 1.
34 Glover, “British Believe,” par. 2.
35 See “Why Bush Won,” Rolling Stone 963 (9 December 2004): available http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/story/6635544/why_bush_won/ accessed 4 November 2006.
36 For a good overview of the answers given, see James E. Campbell, “Why Bush Won the Presidential Election of 2004: Incumbency, Ideology, Terrorism, and Turnout.” Political Science Quarterly 120 (2005): 219-241.
37 Arguably, another reason is because, after numerous controversial statements and appearances promoting the film, in the public eye, Tom Cruise is a hopelessly misguided Scientologist.