Archive for November, 2010

The Spectaclular Politics of Security

November 30, 2010

The arrest of the teenager Mohamed Osman Mohamud for attempting to detonate what he thought to be a car bomb at a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland Oregon provides the latest example of the conservative strategy to relegate political discourse to concerns over the physical security of the population by manufacturing a climate of fear which acts to buttress the increasing power given to repressive organs of the state. What Georgio Agamben calls the politics of security, or the distortion of government’s pastoral function under pressure of a perpetual state of crisis management, effecting the dramatic incursion of state power into the lives of citizens (both domestic and foreign), is supported by these periodic “attacks” by “terrorists” on Western soil. Alongside gaining support for authoritarian government policies from a cowed populace, these incidents serve the further purpose of disguising the root causes of social anxiety (the unraveling of the social fabric by neo-liberal policies?) by deflecting them onto an alien threat which often takes the form of a racial other. Rather than questioning the political and economic structures that have stripped citizens of the protections offered by the post World War Two social settlement, the new politics of security locates the dangers to Western society in external threats (immigrants, the Middle East, the Global South), framing the current social and political crisis as an epic “clash of civilizations” and thereby deflecting public attention from the infiltration of capitalist, profit-oriented paradigms into ever more spheres of social and individual life.

Coming soon to a downtown near you

The recent event in Portland has been constructed by the media in a way that reads like the plot of an episode of the popular “realtime” television drama 24: the ruthless, Somolia-born killer Mohamud attempts to strike at the heart of America’s “greenest” city, choosing this location precisely because it is the place where no one would expect such an attack to happen. His desire for everyone attending the tree-lighting ceremony at Pioneer Courthouse Square (affectionately known as “Portland’s living room”) to “leave dead or injured” (Associated Press) appears to have been expertly neutralized by the FBI, who outmaneuvered Mohamud, arresting him as soon as the nineteen year old would-be killer dialed the number on a cell phone that he believed would set off a car bomb. Borrowing from the stock plot components of theater, the media coverage framed this as a moment of dramatic reversal in which the explosion failed to occur and Mohamud was swarmed by FBI agents while the lighting of the Christmas tree proceeded as planned. Mimicking Jack Bauer and his operatives from 24, and in a display of sentimental pathos that would be almost comical if its effects were not so perniciously and cynically positioned, the FBI agents saved Christmas from the heathen Muslim jihadist.

This narrative nakedly illustrates the disheartening reality of a discursively produced racism that, in the new climate of xenophobic paranoia, seemingly must attend the Western tribal ritual of Christmas: the public kindling of the tree of light as a symbol of hope at the darkest point of the year is spectacularly linked to the public humiliation of a nineteen year old boy who becomes the cipher for an Orientalist view of Muslim culture as violently opposed to everything America stands for. The psychological and social realities that would lead this young person to attempt such an act are paved over by a sensationalist focus on the heartlessness of the perpetrator and the mastering of this threatening alien by a skillful police force, and we are left to wonder the extent to which Mohamed Osman Mohamud might have been coached and encouraged by the FBI in its sting operation. Is it possible that Mohamud’s sense of disenfranchisement and anger was detected by security forces and directed toward the production of the act which they could then step in and play the part of the hero in neutralizing? To what extent was this alleged terrorist event enabled or even encouraged by the intervention of the FBI in the first place?

The manner in which the event unfolded, with the FBI secretly in control of the situation, the car bomb a mere prop provided by the security agents, and the would-be perpetrator thwarted at the very instant he expected to execute his plan, plants it firmly within the realm of a spectacular politics in which crime does not constitute a rupture with the given social order, but rather becomes the orchestrated means by which that order reifies and justifies itself. As in Jean Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacrum, the difference between an actual crime and its simulation becomes irrelevant: what matters is that reality—the actual social relations between Christian America and Muslims, for instance—is effaced beneath a construction that is no longer even ideological, but rather inscribes the relations of domination directly into a carnivalesque spectacle of state-controlled violence and oppression. To this extent, the burning of the Corvallis mosque which Mohamud attended can be seen as the direct result of the FBI’s, rather than Mohamud’s, actions: knowing full well the strong anti-Muslim sentiments the spectacular arrest would make, state power nevertheless chose to apprehend Mohamud in this, rather than in a less public and inflammatory manner.

And yet, the question of whether Mohamud was a victim of entrapment or not, while important from the perspective of determining the guilt or innocence of the accused, is absolutely irrelevant to the spectacular politics of security that the event was constructed to support. Even were an investigation to reveal entrapment on the part of the FBI and thus at least partially absolve Mohamud, the roles played by the actors in this drama were scripted well ahead of time, and the event has already done its work of confirming dominant social mythologies. The idea of an FBI conspiracy behind Mohamud’s alleged plan to detonate the bomb actually serves to reinforce the spectacular nature of this “event” by producing the illusion of a political reality beyond the generated fiction. Following Baudrillard’s advice, we must resist the temptation to call this event a political scandal, as to do so simply reinforces the idea that there is a legitimate, moral order to contemporary politics that this particular instance ideologically manipulates and distorts. The Portland event, like the Watergate of Baudrillard’s historical example, is neither real nor unreal, but hyperreal. The hyperreal is fiction that conceals an absence by producing the illusion of depth. To believe that Nixon’s deception was a scandal is to assert that the political order has a modicum of accountability that it does not, in actuality, hold as an operating principle. In a similar vein, to assert that the Portland bomber’s arrest is a travesty because he is the victim of entrapment is to overlook the fact that the current “war on terror” is, itself, a screen for Western colonial interests in the Middle East, and that unjust American policies have generated the social tensions that would dispose a young Muslim man to such an act in the first place, with or without encouragement from the FBI. To navigate past the obfuscation provided by hyperreality, we must accept the two versions of “reality”–the bomber as “genuine” or as victim of entrapment–as interdependent and mutually-reinforcing products of an immanent yet unrepresentable social Real that prevents people from identifying the actual adversary exploiting them. It is this misrecognition which leads us to generate false threats (whether they be in the form of a racial other or a conspiratorial state power) to placate a sense of anxiety which originates in a completely different location altogether.

A Papal Crack of Light?

November 23, 2010

Pope Benedict XVI’s recently published comments stating that condom use could be deemed acceptable in certain circumstances is a strategic move that produces the appearance of a more progressive Catholic teaching while actually reinforcing atavistic and inhumane ideas regarding birth control and sexuality. Benedict is quoted as saying that

There may be a basis [for condom use] in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility.

The statement that condom use is a step towards more moral, responsible sex is undercut by the specific context of male prostitution that Benedict offers. In this construction, any man using a condom is assuming the status of a male prostitute. The specific concessions for condom use thus uphold the Catholic church’s vilification of contraception, and support the idea that sex is only morally permissible as a means of reproducing the heteronormative nuclear family, while giving the appearance of providing a more progressive position on the issue.

This tactic is even more deplorable if one reads male prostitution as a code, not just for promiscuity, but for homosexuality as well–an equivalence that is difficult not to make given the context of the HIV epidemic that has raised the moral stakes of the issue in the first place. Indeed, the Pope’s recent statements were made in response to journalist Peter Seewald’s questions regarding comments made during a papal visit to Africa in 2009, when Benedict stated that condom use not only would not prevent the spread of HIV, but might actually make it worse. In Seewald’s recent book, Benedict is quoted as saying that he

does not regard [condom use] as a real or moral solution, but in this or that case, there can be nonetheless in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.

The ideological force of this statement is readily apparent: men who have sex with more than one partner–a categorization with the specter of the promiscuous gay male lurking in the background–are less-than-human in their sexuality. Condom use is permissible in these cases because deviant and perverse sexual practices necessitate it, whereas a “healthy”, “moral” and “fully human” sexuality would have no need for such measures. Condom use is permissible by Benedict only as long as use of the contraceptive is made to do the double work of both stopping the spread of disease and marking the condom user as practicing a sub-human form of sexuality. In this sense, the condom serves as a double prophylactic, preventing both biologic and “moral” diseases from spreading.

A similar strategy was employed by the Vatican in the 1960s when nuns working in the Congo were permitted to take birth control pills because they were at risk of being raped by revolution fighters. As Peter M. J. Stravinskas explains in The Catholic Answer Book, the use of contraceptive technology was sanctioned by the Vatican in this case because the act of rape is not one of “true human intercourse” (134). (One can only wonder, judging by history, if the Church should perhaps issue condoms to Catholic priests as well.) In the case of the Congo, contraceptives were permitted so long as they provided the double prophylactic function of protecting the nuns from unwanted pregnancies and reinforcing Western stereotypes that demonize the black, male aggressors as sub-human.

Despite their perpetuation of repressive and homophobic sentiments, Benedict’s recent statements are being lauded as contributing to the prevention of sexually transmitted disease. Given the cultural power that the Catholic church still exerts, these accolades are the equivalent of celebrating an abusive father for deciding to only beat his kids on the weekend: the people breath a sigh or relief for the reprieve they have been ceded while overlooking the fact that the stick they are being abused with is still extremely long.

The System Loves Subversion

November 3, 2010

In a recent interview in Toronto’s weekly entertainment paper, the cult-turned-mainstream filmmaker John Waters lauded the latest Jackass film for its anarchic disregard for standards (“Dirty Waters” in Now Magazine, Oct 21-27, 2010). He is quoted as seeing in the success and wide distribution of the Jackass movies a popularization of the type of transgression once limited to avant-guard arthouse cinema:

Last night I saw a blue-collar audience, sold out; guys with their kids watch a pig eat an apple out of another man’s asshole. And I thought–huh? How do they get away with it? And they do get away with it, in a great way. It’s really anarchy.

The interviewer then asks whether this is not a lowering of standards, to which Waters replies “There are no standards. And that’s the point.” Apart from the standardized format of this exchange, in which the media interviewer plays the role of the mildly scandalized, voice of reason to which the outlandish interviewee replies with a diabolical rejoinder aimed at subverting his interlocutor’s conservative sentiment, the logic behind Waters’ championing subversion actually works to uphold the very standards he dismisses. The reason the producers of Jackass can “get away with it” is because their films are not truly subversive, but rather offer a cathartic release that serves to strengthen the standards they purport to overturn.

Jackass-style shock humour, an early example of which can be found in Tom Green’s public-access cable show from the nineties, works precisely because there are standards which these comedians can overturn and exploit. The fun in Tom Green having a pornographic picture airbrushed on the hood of his parent’s car lies in the fact that this act flaunts the staid, workaday order of respectable society. The audience can indulge an adolescent thrill in overturning social norms and expectations, but the reason this kind of humour contains an affective charge that can have popular appeal is precisely because these norms and standards are so pervasive.

If there actually were no standards, as Waters suggests, this form of humour simply would not work. The question is whether or not these type of carnivalesque inversions actually support the very structures they pretend to subvert, temporarily suspending them only to make them all the more entrenched when the momentary thrill of escaping the established order wears off. The mutually supportive relationship between transgression and repressive order is the secret hinge that allows so much allegedly subversive popular culture to be tolerated and even encouraged by the modern culture industry.

As Foucault’s anti-repressive hypothesis suggests, modern systems of social control operate within a permissive and productive, rather than a repressive framework. The repressive element enters in when we try to consider the types of truly oppositional actions that the sensationalist pseudo-subversions of popular culture effectively trivialize and preempt. John Waters is right to this extent: the antics of the Jackass crew are a popularized incorporation of the types of shock tactics developed by avant-guard artists, though I would look back to such innovators as the dadaists and surrealists rather than 70s trash films. By lacing surreal, interventionist imagery with a generous dose of sadomasochistic humiliation and macho fraternity antics, the Jackass films subvert subversion, reclaiming it for a social order based on power and domination.

But can we locate the initial kernel of resistance that lies buried in the incorporated form of guerrilla humour exhibited by the Jackass films? The genius inherent in some of Tom Green’s skits lies in his ability to use sensational disruptions of the everyday order to point out the urecognized absurdity of this order. To this extent, his best work is in the lineage of great modern art like the surrealists or the films of Chaplin where a character’s lack of fit with the social order brings out its inherent contradictions. With this in mind, I would offer one of my favourite Tom Green pieces…