Friday, May 24, 2013

In Memory of Chinua Achebe

After hearing that Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, famous for writing “Things Fall Apart”, passed away in March I picked up “No Longer at Ease”, the sequel to that classic novel. “No Longer at Ease” tells the story of Obi Okonkwo, the grandson of the protagonist from “Things Fall Apart”. Obi is an excellent student, and receives a scholarship to study at Oxford. After earning a degree in English, he returns to Nigeria to work as a civil servant in Lagos, and has a difficult time navigating the deeply corrupt colonial government without becoming entrenched in it. Meanwhile, it is revealed to him that his girlfriend comes from a cursed lineage, and that if he were to marry her he would incur the wrath of his family. Eventually, both his romantic and careeristic endeavors collapse. Obi begins taking bribes- in the form of cash or sexual favors- and is eventually caught and jailed. At his sentencing, the judge says: “I cannot comprehend how a young man of your education and brilliant promise could have done this.” Hearing this, “Treacherous tears came into Obi’s eyes. He brought out a white handkerchief and rubbed his face. But he did it as people do when they wipe sweat.” Achebe’s portrayal of Obi as a tragic figure is very subtle, but it sheds light on issues surrounding race, political idealism and other topics.

                The climax of the novel centers around two tragedies. Obi’s mother dies and his girlfriend, Clara, leaves him, disappearing from his life after a botched abortion. Obi experiences a definite shift in his mental state after these events. Prior to them, his life was permeated by dissatisfaction and frustration with both the outdated practices of his family and villagers and the arbitrary practices of the colonizing forces. His literary training, in a sense, backfired because once he left the ivory tower his only use for poetry was as a private respite from his disappointment, not as a tool for him to make sense of the colonial state he was frustrated by. After them, he experiences what Achebe calls “the peace that passeth all understanding”. He experiences his mother’s death not as an excruciating reminder of his estrangement from his family and culture, but as a severing of himself from his family and culture. His identity as a Nigerian fades away, his anguish collapses under the weight of its own inscrutability. He recognizes that time heals his wounds not mercifully, but indifferently. This leads Obi to begin living at the dreamlike pace of colonized Lagos (Nigeria’s capital city), taking bribes from parents worried about their children’s success, because he knows that the system is broken anyway. The formerly unthinkable act of taking bribes becomes sanitized, not reassuringly, but indifferently.

                The book deals with issues of race only in passing. After Obi’s conviction, his supervisor offers his opinion as to why Obi took bribes, “The African is corrupt through and through… over countless centuries the African has been the victim of the worst climate in the world and of every imaginable disease. Hardly his fault. But he has been sapped mentally and physically. We brought him western education but what use is it to him?” Rather than deal with Obi’s particular case, he blames inherent African inferiority and backs up his claim with pseudoscience.  His colleagues are uneasy about this explanation, but the matter soon passes. Colonized Africans are seen as a blank slate for the diffusion of western values, but because they are unreceptive to them, they merely serve as inferior “others” who can affirm western authority. This line of thought has been heavily pursued by literary theorists like Homi Bhabha, and it applies to “No Longer at Ease”. Obi stands between western ideals of “education” and “progress” and the aphorisms of his people. The value of his education is rendered moot when he returns to work in a corruption-riddled government, and the allegories of his people lose their explanatory power when age-old curses become antiquated and unreasonable rather than solemn.  When the ideals of two peoples clash, they don’t merge into a more perfect whole, they come crashing down to the earth and are lost in the cosmopolitan bustle.  He wants to marry Clara, but since she comes from a cursed lineage he can’t… their marriage would make his assimilation into a “civilized” western culture more expedient, but he finds the superficiality of that culture repugnant. The Marxist adage that abstraction is interpersonally actualized as estrangement and indifference is powerfully realized here. There is a disparity between the solemnity with which his mother threatens- if he goes through with his marriage- to commit suicide, and with which the judge deploys big words like “education” and “promise”, and the superficiality of her threat and the content of his words. This disparity is a result of the colonial presence. “The death of a mother is not like a palm tree bearing fruit at the end of its leaf, no matter how much we want to make it so. And that is not the only illusion we have…” Events that, when they occurred within a single culture, had attached to them an element of metaphorical beauty and a veneer of eternity, are reduced to blank facts of the events or experiences themselves. Why? The fundamental illusion—that of racial difference—absorbs other illusions, which may have been harmless, and ambivalently contextualizes them in a new, oppressive framework.  The aphorisms of his people may make Obi feel nostalgic, but now that the dreams of his people center around filling a role in the colonial government that is the instrument of their own oppression, having dreams or ideals at all becomes suspect.

                “No Longer at Ease” has many lessons to teach today’s activists. Near the novel’s end, Achebe writes: “The impatient idealist says: ‘Give me a place to stand and I shall move the earth.’ But such a place does not exist.” Political disappointment seeks a pedestal from which to voice its discontent—to make its discontent feel as true as the debunked ideals and aphorisms that gave birth to it felt. Achebe continues, “We all have to stand on the earth itself and go with her at her pace. The most horrible sight in the world cannot put out the eye.” Obi attempts to go with the earth at its own pace by fading into the corrupt folly of his surroundings; in doing this, he finds comfort but loses himself (when he is arrested for taking bribes, he speaks to the police officer in a voice he “scarcely recognizes as his own”). At his sentencing, he cries tears not of moral shame but of inconsolable dejection. Of course, the white men surrounding him in the court room assume that he is crying out of moral shame, and they can, their values being affirmed, continue enjoying the game. Chinua Achebe never sought a place to stand but, with his deft portrayal of the anonymous despair of assimilated Africans, moved the earth nonetheless.

Dedicated to the memory of Chinua Achebe, 1930-2013

Monday, May 6, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty: Operation National Catharsis Is in the Motherfucking House

To start off with an appropriately Nixonian passive, a lot has been said about Zero Dark Thirty. Mostly it has to do with whether or not the movie condones torture; there's a welter of opinions on either side of that issue, and I don't want to touch it. Both sides, with the exception of articles by Slavoj Zizek and Kathryn Bigelow, have been sloppy in their reasoning and dishonest in their motivations. What interests me is the broader issue of "normalization": the common axiom is that the question of whether or not it normalizes torture is only pertinent because the movie is brilliant.

And it is: Zero Dark Thirty is an astonishing, terrifying movie, head and shoulders above most of the movies up for Best Picture this year (i.e. the movies that weren't Amour). It's a wildly ambitious film with an icy narrative focus, meticulously shot and designed, emotionally devastating and resonant on a level that few movies even try to approach anymore; at the very least it beats the hell out of Argo's one-liners and cheap tricks. In fact, if Get Your War On didn't exist it might even be the defining statement about the War on Terror.

Movies that attempt to peer into the oily depths of the American psyche have been pretty rare since 9/11, and Zero Dark Thirty occasionally seems to be trying to make up for every inch of lost ground. For hours it feels like the movie's whole mission is to reveal—from the barbed wire and sandbags of the black sites to the intelligence-community jargon of its heroes to, of course, the explicit depiction of waterboarding, the movie dedicates itself to showing us how things really were during the War on Terror. And not only through set pieces like the torture scenes; shots upon shots are crammed with Bush-era kitsch like AIM and old-model Toyotas. The movie frantically tosses things into discourse, knowing that over the course of the ridiculously retro decade it chronicles we got perilously close to complete aesthetic detachment from our own time. Fredric Jameson would probably sniff at the idea that a single movie could restore our culture's sense of its own continuing history, but futile or not, that's exactly what Zero Dark Thirty attempts: a total aesthetic excavation of the last decade, leading effectively right up to yesterday.

The movie focuses so much on this mandate that it narratively obliterates Osama Bin Laden, who is a total cipher throughout the movie. Zero Dark Thirty isn't a story about a hunt, isn't even really a procedural. We never see Jessica Chastain staring murderously at picture of her nemesis, and in fact we never get the sense that Bin Laden is doing very much at all, apart from hiding. The bombings and shootings that dot the film are never really attributed to Bin Laden, or even necessarily to Al Qaeda; in many cases they seem as random as gang violence, just workplace hazards whose narrative function is built on our understanding of Central Asia as a place where bad things happen. The bureaucracy embodied by Chastain's Maya operates in a dangerous environment; there's nothing more than weak implication to blame that danger on Bin Laden. There's no villain, just an environment. The hunt for Bin Laden is just a lens through which we watch that environment develop; more in the tradition of The Godfather than The Battle of Algiers, Zero Dark Thirty is an epic about America.

I'd like to dwell on that word, epic, as the basis for the rest of my analysis, because Zero Dark Thirty, for all its journalistic trappings, is well and truly a myth-making film. In fact, I'd argue that the hyper-journalistic style it affects is a critical tool in its myth-making.

Watching Zero Dark Thirty, as I've said, we're struck with the sense of a massive, disembodied process taking place: the American organization is so big and has tendrils in so many places that it's impossible to reveal all of it from the worm's-eye perspective the movie adopts, and the most it can do is point us, through Maya, at the greatest number of salient details in every scene. We never get an inkling of perspective on the causes or even many of the consequences of the American war machine; word just comes down from on high that torture is out, and so torture is out.

The point, though, is that the disembodied processes that govern life in Zero Dark Thirty start to feel a lot like magic. Their causes are obscure and their effects are unquestionable. American empire moves in mysterious ways. This is what really poisons Zero Dark Thirty: its realism is just a stylistic affectation, skin-deep, like its investigation of changes in American society.

This rule is best demonstrated by its exception, when Maya gets on a helicopter out of Central Asia. In maybe the only overtly "literary" moment in the movie, the pilot asks her where she wants to go next, and she stares at him, baffled, before bursting into agonized tears. This is a mawkish way of getting at the central message of the movie—that there's nowhere to go after we've killed Bin Laden—but it's redeemed by Jessica Chastain's heartbreaking performance. For just a few moments, the movie has the ability to see the forest for the trees, and Maya seems like a national avatar, broken enough by the War on Terror to stand in for all of us. It's raw catharsis, and it's all the more shocking because the only comparable end to a movie we've had for years is in The Social Network, which hinges on our jealousy and contempt for Mark Zuckerberg. Zero Dark Thirty's almost feels redemptive. But even this ending is ultimately hollow, because Maya's ascension to national avatar status comes too late; the whole movie has focused on her as a single actor in a complex system, a rigorously independent character who signifies nothing, and now suddenly she becomes a metaphor. Maybe it feels like a tragedy, but a personal tragedy, not a national one.

And that's the problem with Zero Dark Thirty: it focuses relentlessly on the personal at the expense of the national. The passive-voice ills that befall its antiheroes damage their sensitivities, but like Zizek identified in his review, the movie never gestures towards any damage to a whole ethical system, and certainly never looks for agents to attach to that passive voice. Maya's life is convincingly ruined by her pursuit of Bin Laden and the changing world around her, but the movie never imputes anything more far-reaching than that. The hunt for Bin Laden only hurts Maya, and the movie only lets Maya become a pharmakos at the very end, once the danger of disrupting its gearheaded visual style has passed.

I think this is what the movie's critics must be driving at when they accuse it of "normalization"—the movie's fetish for reporting detail necessarily means taking that detail at face value, seeing it as the inevitable product of social changes beyond our ken. It accepts ethical degradation dutifully, and restricts itself to examining the implications of that degradation insofar as they fit into the lives of its characters.

This is exactly how cultural hegemony works: it makes top-down change seem mythical, necessary and universal, reserving compassion and anger for the smallest and most ineffectual scales. Zero Dark Thirty implies that injustice is systemic and not simply interpersonal, but it's only an implication, and the only responses it can imagine to that systemic injustice are despair or, worse, obedience.

I've taken it for granted that this movie is attempting to make a political statement about the decay of the United States, because despite protests in support of its "apolitical" nature, Bigelow's avowed pacifism and the personal tragedy of the ending convince me that the movie is, if not a social critique, at least social. In this, I think it betrays one of the most disturbing trends in liberal thinking today: even in political movies like Zero Dark Thirty, "systemic injustice" is treated as a basically unknowable force, a fog that hangs in the air or, in the case of Zero Dark Thirty, creaks in social machinery that we can't understand. It's de-historicized, de-materialized, turned into magic. This is the failure, both aesthetic and political, of Zero Dark Thirty. For all its reportage, it's really oriented towards mystification, and for all the noise it makes, it's as critical of the bureaucracy as a sheaf of paper in one of Maya's binders.