Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Posts Tagged ‘necropolitics

Guiltpiercer

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I wanted to Storify my back-and-forth with my friend Aaron Bady (and a few other people, but mostly him) on the question of guilt and complicity in liberal politics, which was prompted by his Texas Stands With Gaza post and ultimately looped around, as all things must, to Snowpiercer.

Aaron is right that I’m using Snowpiercer (along with Pacific Rim, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and some other recent Anthropocene science fictions) in a piece of academic writing I’m working on, so I’ll hold off on doing a full reading of the film here for now. But I think the film actually figures this debate we’re having in a pretty direct way. The people on the train are all “guilty” and “complicit” with the Snowpiercer system, albeit in different ways and to different degrees; like any necropolitical survivor, they are all alive while/because someone else has died. Even on the level of character development, much of the movement of the film is directed towards making Chris Evans’s character Curtis feel as though he is worthy of great things despite the guilt he carries with him; characters frequently say this to him explicitly, even, most notably, the character he once tried to eat as a baby and who he later abandons in the name of the larger mission! In fact this guilt, in properly liberal terms, is indistinguishable from his worthiness to lead, with the final act of the film culminating in Curtis being offered the position of the Wizard of Snowpiercer. The Curtis plot in the film is more or less a familiar liberal drama about coming to terms with your own guilty complicity in the system, a process which as if by baptismal magic thereby makes you worthy to run the whole thing as if you’d never been guilty or complicit in the first place.

Aaron’s reading on the film insists that this is the only trajectory open to us, even as he repeatedly turns to Kang-ho Song’s Namgoong as the voice of alterity, rejecting his plan as nonviable. Namgoong knows the train is a horror and knows the train is doomed by its own entropic breakdown, rejects guilt or complicity as a frame, and instead works to blow open the doors and escape. (And this is the position Curtis ultimately settles into as well, having finally hit an encounter of guilt which he can’t autoredeem his way out of in the form of the children in the engine.) Here then we see one version of the Canavan position: guilt is a way of becoming re-trapped, linked back into the atrocity engine, while refusing to identify with the system and its terms opens up the horizon of the future. Neither Namgoong nor Curtis survive the derailment of the train (“there is hope, infinite hope, but not for us”), but their protégés do, and in the final shot of the film see a live polar bear moving outside the train, indicating that life of some kind persists outside the train and that therefore there is something like hope after all.

Now, Aaron rejects all of this — “it’s too cold out there! they have no skills or supplies! that polar bear will probably just eat them!” — and of course he’s right to do so on the level of cold realism; like most such apocalyptic scenarios, the situation is too far gone to allow any sort of genuine renewal. (I always think of the way the Matrix sequels had to confront this, ultimately having the heroic rebels make a truce with the monsters they were supposed to slay because the world is too far gone to actually free anyone anymore.) But this is where Aaron’s flattening of Jameson’s theory of utopia hurts him a bit — because the kernel of the Jamesonian reading of the film is not to imagine it as a practical alternative to the present so much as to figure the ongoing exist alternative in an era that, at every turn, loudly insists there isn’t one.

For it is the very principle of the radical break as such, its possibility, which is reinforced by the Utopian form, which insists that its radical difference is possible and that a break is necessary. The Utopian form itself is the answer to the universal ideological conviction that no alternative is possible, that there is no alternative to the system. But it asserts this by forcing us to think the break itself, and not by offering a more traditional picture of what things will be like after the break. (Archaeologies 232)

Snowpiercer, it seems to me, is pretty plainly about this effort of the imagination; neither the setup nor the climax is really amenable to any sort of realistic analysis about the practicalities of the situation. It’s preposterous from start to finish. The point of the film is to disrupt our guilty comfort and our comforting guilt about a system we all know is terrible (“those crooked fuckers”) but think we can’t oppose, only picket and sigh about and be more beautiful than (“oh, we guilty sinners, oh this fallen world”). So of course the film is an allegory after all; what it figures isn’t the actual situation of capitalism but the hopeless prospects for people who can’t see any way to stop the train, other than a crash, and who perhaps for that very reason have come to believe they’re the ones who are driving it.

If They Have Vital Signs, Get ’em Out

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At 12:28 p.m., a Memorial administrator typed “HELP!!!!” and e-mailed colleagues at other Tenet hospitals outside New Orleans, warning that Memorial would have to evacuate more than 180 patients. Around the same time, Deichmann met with many of the roughly two dozen doctors at Memorial and several nurse managers in a stifling nurse-training room on the fourth floor, which became the hospital’s command center. The conversation turned to how the hospital should be emptied. The doctors quickly agreed that babies in the neonatal intensive-care unit, pregnant mothers and critically ill adult I.C.U. patients would be at great risk from the heat and should get first priority. Then Deichmann broached an idea that was nowhere in the hospital’s disaster plans. He suggested that all patients with Do Not Resuscitate orders should go last.

This story from the New York Times Magazine about the breakdown in medical practice in a stranded New Orleans hospital during Katrina will stick with me a long time. Unprepared for the severity or duration of the crisis, believing things in New Orleans to be much worse than in retrospect they were, and apparently significantly undertrained in proper triage procedure or in the deep ethical minefields surrounding end-of-life care (including apparently not understanding what a D.N.R. is), these doctors made some very difficult choices that a layperson like myself cannot possibly judge them for—but what happened at Memorial Medical Center should be standard-issue training in medical, schools, nursing schools, and hospitals so that things never go so badly off the rails again. This was not a zombie attack; it was not the end of the world. Katrina was only a local disaster. To paraphrase the patient quoted in the article: If they have vital signs, Jesus Christ, get ’em out.

Thiele didn’t know Pou by name, but she looked to him like the physician in charge on the second floor. He told me that Pou told him that the Category 3 patients were not going to be moved. He said he thought they appeared close to death and would not have survived an evacuation. He was terrified, he said, of what would happen to them if they were left behind. He expected that the people firing guns into the chaos of New Orleans — “the animals,” he called them — would storm the hospital, looking for drugs after everyone else was gone. “I figured, What would they do, these crazy black people who think they’ve been oppressed for all these years by white people? I mean if they’re capable of shooting at somebody, why are they not capable of raping them or, or, you know, dismembering them? What’s to prevent them from doing things like that?”

The laws of man had broken down, Thiele concluded, and only the laws of God applied.

Some appropriately heated discussion at MeFi.

Written by gerrycanavan

August 28, 2009 at 1:05 pm

Posts from Friends

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Traxus considers survival horror:

There are ‘left’ and ‘right’ versions of the zombie myth, but the message is always the same: the horrors wrought by humanity in extremis are always worse than the zombies.The absolute manichean split between human and zombie is insisted on only to be ’shockingly’ deconstructed, with all other differences either elided or made to look ridiculous by comparison. Like them, we must kill to live, even if there is no reason to go on (civilization is destroyed, etc.). We are them, they are us.

while Alex Greenberg considers Tarantino:

Tarantino does not critique violence. He loves it. The parodies of violence in Kill Bill are not criticisms aimed at violence but criticisms aimed at film. He wants filmmakers to understand that they can make violence fun and to revel in this fact. Of course, for him, film is film and real life is real life, and I agree that one cannot draw a connection between violent acts in film and violent acts in “the real world.” But I would add that the relationship between ideology and action is always an ideological one: it shapes opinions and attitudes, forming how people look at the world, in this case, one starkly divided between good and evil, as Eli Roth said in an interview with The Onion AV Club: “[My character is] not taking pleasure in killing. He’s fighting evil on behalf of those who can’t fight. He knows he’s the biggest and strongest one in the bunch, and he wants to terrorize them. But he’s doing it to stop evil.” This would sit very well with my “Bible and the Holocaust” professor, who viewed human history as a gigantic contest between David and Hitler. But for those of us who are stuck in the realm of the human, this film adds nothing to the conversation.

Written by gerrycanavan

August 25, 2009 at 9:57 pm

‘The Walking Dead’

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News of the upcoming AMC adaptation encouraged me to check out the trade paperbacks of Robert Kirkman’s zombie comic The Walking Dead (wiki), whose ten-book / sixty-issue run I subsequently blew through in about three days (including some just-can’t-stop reading until 4 or 5 AM last night). The Walking Dead is one of a handful of books like Y: The Last Man or Planetary that are just painfully, painfully good, and since neither of those titles are being published regularly it may just be the best title on the market right now. Or so it seems to me now, in the full throes of this terrible zombie high. Kirkman describes his intent in the introduction to Days Gone By to create the feel of a George Romero film that never ends, and damned if he doesn’t nail it. Unflinching, brutal, innovative, and intensely unforgiving, with an acutely Mbembian sense of what survival is and what it means, this is a must-read instant classic of the genre.

I promise you won’t regret picking it up.

Image Comics has generously put the first issue online to get you started. Then head down to your local comic shop to get the trades.

Written by gerrycanavan

August 16, 2009 at 10:22 pm