The Alamo

The point of legends is their adaptability. Freed from the requirements of realism, a legend can be reinvoked for diverse purposes as circumstances demand.

John Lee Hancock’s The Alamo is, as Philip French notes, “clearly a post-9/11 movie,” whose message, French argues, is that the war it portrays is “a war that should not have been fought, but having engaged with a monstrous enemy, it must be carried on, however reluctantly.”

But if we can indeed follow contemporary parallels, then the movie is hardly the “decent, rather half-hearted liberal affair” that French contends.

The story of the Alamo is, in the first place, a story of traumatic defeat: the Mexican army’s massacre of some 180 defenders holed up in the former mission near San Antonio. In the second place, however, it tells of the power of memory to stir a victorious counter-attack: Sam Houston’s subsequent defeat of General Santa Anna at San Jacinto, spurred by the shout “Remember the Alamo!”

And the prime ideological justification for the war against Iraq (especially now that talk of Weapons of Mass Destruction has faded) likewise invokes the memory of trauma to stir resolve against a “monstrous enemy”: “Remember 9/11!”

The connection between 9/11 and Iraq is specious, of course, but in so far as The Alamo is indeed a 9/11 allegory, it naturalizes and secures the relation between this trauma and subsequent US bellicosity.

Santa Anna portrayed by EcheverriaAnd The Alamo‘s Santa Anna, played with some panache by Emilio Echeverría, is indeed the very model of a modern tyrant: cowardly and effete, more concerned with pomp and appearance than tactics or efficiency, he callously sacrifices his soldiers and ignores his officers’ pleas to respect the rules of war.

For this is the trauma according to Hancock: the fact that Santa Anna plays “dirty” in his assault on the Alamo. (By contrast, for Christy Cabanne’s 1915 Martyrs of the Alamo what’s at issue is the threat that the Mexicans pose to the honour of Texan womenfolk.) The point, however, is somewhat undermined by the fact that the Alamo’s defenders are themselves not the most clean-cut of heroes: Jim Bowie is an unabashed slave-owner, William Travis a dandy with a shady past, and Davy Crockett a troubled character overshadowed by his own mythology.

In the end, though, there is one constant in all the various re-tellings of the Alamo legend: it is a tale about the constitution of an American people.

The mission’s defenders are a rag-tag bunch of volunteers and regulars, brought together for a variety of motives, often disreputable. It is only in the face of a foreign aggressor that their internal conflict, essentially between the principle of a citizen militia and the imposition of military hierarchy, is resolved in favour of the state: both the state of Texas and statehood itself.

Ultimately, this is the narrative of how the Tennessee Mounted Volunteers and the New Orleans Greys and other disparate powers come together to defend the idea of a unitary power, which eventually will become the 28th State of the United States of America.

(Cross-posted from Latin America on Screen.)


A friend and I were chatting today, and he asked about disaffection. What kind of affect, or anti-affect, is it?

Disaffection is not simply an absence of affect. It usually has an object: people are disaffected with something. In some cases, disaffection can be the prelude to rebellion. It’s a kind of low-grade insurrection, perhaps less focussed and less determined than refusal (for which the paradigm is always Bartleby), but more spirited than anomie.

Then there’s boredom. I’m interested in boredom, as both affect and affectlessness. I remember Patrice Petro always suggesting that boredom was a feminist affect, indicating an impatience with the status quo and an unwillingness to hear the same old patriarchal stories told over and over.


Over at Long Sunday, there’s an interesting post on Benevolent Global Hegemony, about the “power of ideas”:

I am amazed (and horrified) that in the mainstream it is conservatives who talk about “ideas” and “liberals” talk about “solving problems.”

But it’s no surprise that conservatives should be “idealist,” i.e. that they should erase or elide the importance of material (economic or political) factors in their own success. It’s worth returning to The German Ideology:

The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appear at this stage as the direct efflux of their material behaviour. (47)

Marx’s account has of course to be added to and complicated, but it’s a decent start.

There remains, however, the question of what additional work ideas do. In what ways do ideas overdetermine political and historical processes?

The power of ideas has little to do with the extent to which they convince those to whom they are addressed, though this would be what hegemony theory suggests: that people consent to their own domination on the basis of the ideological discourse to which they are subjected. Rather, it’s a matter of the conviction with which those ideas are held, the sense of confidence or presumption that they convey.

Brian Massumi writes about the confidence projected by Ronald Reagan. The coherence (or, more often, otherwise) of his pronouncements was unimportant. And people happily voted for Reagan even though they were aware that they disagreed with him. But Reaganism secured power through affect, not through ideology. Or, as Massumi says, he produced ideological effects by non-ideological means. Hence the Zizekian formula of posthegemony: “I know, but still I do.”

Much of what Massumi writes about Reagan applies a fortiori to Bush the Younger. Liberals who pillory so-called “Bushisms” miss the point. The power of Bush’s ideas resides not in their logic or coherence, but in the ways in which they are held: as folk wisdom, from time immemorial, imperfectly remembered in the present, but unassailable for that very reason.

There’s an old saying in Tennessee—I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee—that says, fool me once, shame on—shame on you. Fool me—you can’t get fooled again.

What’s important here is the flexibility and mutability (“I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee”) of ideas that are never meant to convince, to cohere, to secure consent.

The work that these ideas perform is, to poach a phrase from Hardt and Negri, a form of affective labour.


A quick note…

s0metim3s asks, in a post well worth reading in full:

should the struggles against internment, war, etc be characterised as struggles which attempt to respond to the ’state of emergency’ or as struggles whose history has preceded the onset of the ’state of emergency’?

Isn’t this also the question of “resistance”?

I was surprised when I saw Negri in London a year or so ago, that he so insistently used the term “resistance,” which I had always thought signalled the reactive nature of social struggles: you resist a power that, in resisting, you already acknowledge is in some way more powerful than you are. That conception is very much the opposite of the way in which Negri otherwise frames the issue of what he terms “constituent power,” for which it is the state and/or capital that has, ceaselessly, to react to the multitude’s creative innovations.

In practice, I’d say, resistance and creativity are always mixed. Indeed, the most successful resistance turns to creativity, and so moves beyond the struggle against some prior power. Equally, however, even the most innovative and creative of constituent strategies needs to protect its flanks or its rearguard. To take the metaphor of “Exodus,” is it not as though the Biblical Israelites did not resist Pharaoh, even as they carved a line of flight through the Egyptian desert.

yet more piracy

Why pirates are in fact good for the world. The chart below is taken from Joshuah Bearman, who in turn got it from The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. In the CotFSM’s own words:

You may be interested to know that global warming, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters are a direct effect of the shrinking numbers of Pirates since the 1800s. For your interest, I have included a graph of the approximate number of pirates versus the average global temperature over the last 200 years. As you can see, there is a statistically significant inverse relationship between pirates and global temperature.

chart correlating piracy and global warmingI should mention that the image file is named “piratesarecool4.jpg.”

Otherwise, for more serious thoughts on piracy, head over to theoria.


(Via The Square Circuit…)

Well, further to my earlier entry about the “Salvador Option”, it turns out that just a couple of days thereafter Donald Rumsfeld did indeed compare Iraq to Salvador.

Setting everything else aside, I can’t but believe that such comparisons will backfire. Comparing Iraq to Salvador in the 1980s can only further taint rather than boost the public image of the Iraqi regime now in (rather tenuous) power. Especially given what is commonly accepted about massacres and death squads in the Salvadoran civil war.


I’ve been leafing through Aldo Lauria-Santiago and Leigh Binford’s collection Landscapes of Struggle: Politics, Society, and Community in El Salvador. It was Binford who organized a session at last year’s Latin American Studies Association, in Vegas, entitled “Disputing the Post hegemony Thesis.”

Part of what’s at issue in the debate, such as it is, over posthegemony is a matter of differing definitions. Thus Binford et. al. draw on Raymond Williams and (especially) William Roseberry, whereas I prefer to read hegemony theory through Gramsci and Laclau. It became clear in the Vegas session itself that those declaring themselves against posthegemony were equally opposed to Laclau’s reformulation of hegemony itself.

In many ways that’s fair enough, but the signal service provided by Laclau is to provide a real theorization of the concept of hegemony. Binford and friends, by contrast, fall back on “hegemony” as a catch-all notion that sounds sophisticated but ends up merely confused.

church in Jocoaitique, MorazanHere’s an example, from Binford’s own otherwise very interesting essay “Peasants, Catechists, Revolutionaries,” on the role of the Catholic church in Northern Morazán, which would come to be the heartland of FMLN territory during the civil war, and site of the FMLN’s unofficial “capital,” Perquín. Describing the conservative theology and pastoral practice of the region’s only pre-war priest, Binford states that:

These beliefs established Catholicism as an important underpinning of the regional hegemonic order, defining hegemony here as a system of beliefs and practices that favor dominant groups and that serve as frames that shape people’s lived experience, even their experience of struggle against oppression. (108; emphasis in original)

There follows a footnote that refers to Williams’s Marxism and Literature and to Roseberry’s “Hegemony and the Language of Contention,” but to no particular passages from either work.

On the one hand, this sentence is so banal as to be unarguable. Of course, Catholicism (or rather, the orthodox, pietistic Catholicism that preceded the changes initiated by Vatican II) played an important part in securing regional order. On the other hand, in so far as Binford purports to be explaining the mechanisms by which this order was secured, his statement here is opaque in the extreme.

For instance, what exactly is the relation between “hegemony” and “hegemonic order”? And why not, say, talk of the hegemonic underpinning of regional order? In other words, what is the relation between the Church and this “regional order” of which Binford writes? In what ways did Catholicism “underpin” this order rather than being itself part of it? What is meant by seeing beliefs and practices as “frames that shape people’s lived experience,” so apparently distinguishing them from experience? What is this metaphor of framing, and what does it actually mean?

In short, why does Binford wish to separate out hegemony from the other components of the society he is describing, putting it on another level (underpinning) or transcending (framing) that society? I think it’s because he’s trying to make the concept do some analytic work, to present it as some (semi-)external mechanism or cause to explain apparent peasant docility. Because peasants are themselves, of course, naturally rebellious, somehow in themselves endlessly “struggl[ing] against oppression.” But even the very language that Binford uses (“beliefs and practices”) gets hegemony entangled again within the experience and behavior that the concept allegedly explains.

Far from an explanatory concept, hegemony becomes “hegemonic order” and so little more than a redescription of the phenomena that Binford sets out to analyze. The terminological shift from “regional order” to “hegemony” to “regional hegemonic order” in fact explains nothing, adds nothing to our understanding of the relations between Catholicism, subalterns, and elites. It leads only to confusion masking as sophistication, bereft of any foundation beyond the gestural.


Hugo Chávez is in the news again, now thanks to Pat Robertson’s outrageous call for his assassination. The Venezuelan president is no stranger to the headlines, of course, nor does he shirk them. He takes on his (many and vociferous) opponents directly and publicly, whether by baiting the so-called “escuálidos” who are his domestic opposition, or by taking on the US government, most recently accusing DEA agents of international espionage.

I’ve never been a great fan of Chávez. His personalist style is deeply problematic. In typical populist manner, he deploys his charisma to conjure away the fact of state domination. I have been ambivalent about his regime despite recognizing that anti-chavista forces are far more unsavory. I remember asking a friend, who was at the time editor at the excellent Caracas-based Nueva Sociedad, whether the military might come to power if Chávez were overthrown. “Ah, but the military is already in power,” was his response.

And it’s true that Chávez is an ex-paratrooper, who came to attention first as head of an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1992. Also, if the 2002 effort to unseat him failed in part because of the multitudinous uprising that ensued, another reason was the loyalty shown by the military rank and file, most of whom still see him as one of them.

Ironically, in that he depends so much on television to construct and maintain his popular appeal, complete with his own talk show, Aló Presidente, and given his direct, over-dramatic, evangelical style, Chávez is in some ways the mirror image of his latest critic, the tele-evangelist Robertson. And Chávez’s tele-populism undoubtedly depends upon and engenders the power of popular belief.

But is there anything more to chavismo than its faith in a leader?

I was (quite by accident) in Venezuela during the 2002 coup and counter-coup. It was an extraordinary week. And one thing was obvious: Chávez’s supporters, who constitute, as has now been repeatedly demonstrated, the majority of the population, expected a lot of his government; but it had yet to deliver. The regime had not made much of a difference to Venezuela’s poor. It was long on rhetoric, but short on results. It had proposed a number of creative and controversial foreign policy initiatives (from seeking to resuscitate and reorient OPEC to improving links with Cuba), but had been mostly on the defensive domestically.

That may now be changing. The fact that populism still figures the people as expectant (and so dependent) on a power alien to them remains its great limitation. But at least the people are no longer simply waiting. And the reforms that the government is effecting, in the wake of the counter-coup, suggest further change may be on its way. In the space of a few months, Venezuela has come to attention for its empowerment of workers on the shop floor, its education and health programs, and its ambitious land reform initiative.

One could draw a contrast with the government over which Brazil’s Lula presides. Unlike Chávez, Lula has long been the darling of the international left. His Workers’ Party grew out of struggles against military repression in the 1970s and 1980s, his personal biography is compelling, he has made all the right noises in terms of regional solidarity, and has hosted and encouraged the Porto Alegre gatherings of the World Social Forum. But, also unlike Chávez, his government has become mired in a corruption scandal that, if it doesn’t reach to the very top, goes pretty close to it. Meanwhile, Lula’s much vaunted social programs, particularly the “Zero Hunger” program, have so far proved insubstantial and ineffectual. And his economic policies have been a continuation of the neoliberal orthodoxy already in place, which have kept the markets happy but done little to reduce his country’s appalling wealth and income inequalities.

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs has two useful articles detailing how the mess that Lula finds himself in contrasts with Chávez’s status as Latin America’s rising superstar.

I’ve always found it strange that Venezuela, despite its strategic importance and economic weight, has commanded so little attention outside its borders. (The number of prominent Latin Americanists with expertise on the country can be counted on the fingers of one mutilated hand, compared to the myriads studying, say, Argentina, Mexico, or Peru.) It’s time for us to take a little more notice. A good place to start is And Gregory Wilpert, as evidenced in articles such as this one, has for some time been among the more astute commentators on the so-called Bolivarian Revolution.

“We are the expression of the multitude”, declare Venezuela’s community media association. Well, maybe. Chávez continues to hog the headlines, but there may indeed be something rather interesting going on within the organizations that have been established under his regime’s aegis, or in parallel with the regime itself.


Here’s another snippet that will probably be dropped from the chapter. It deals with an issue I’ve discussed earlier, as k-punk has observed: the relation between terror and narrative.

There’s hardly a better example of this (non)relation than Alan Clarke’s film Elephant (1989), simultaneously the most and the least eloquent of statements about terror. The film is almost devoid of dialogue, and consists of a series of assassinations carried out by various un-named, unidentified characters in a depopulated, everyday suburban landscape of shops, factories, parks, gas stations and so on. The camera follows silent and seemingly ordinary figures who make their way determinedly through the city until they come across another equally anonymous figure, and then remorselessly, unfailingly, shoot.

still from Elephant
One assassination follows another, relentlessly, horrifically, without explanation or apparent meaning. More emphatically even than Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Short Film about Killing (1988), Elephant makes no attempt to justify or explain its serial murders. But the film’s silence is unbearable. We inevitably attempt to construct some kind of story, some kind of frame within which to situate the slaughter, and so to relieve (displace) the shock that it causes us. As Richard Kirkland puts it, “the discrete autonomy of Elephant‘s violence is fundamentally compromised by the viewer’s endless and troubled search for narrative” (8).

So once it is “understood” (most likely thanks to its paratexts) that the film is set in Northern Ireland during the troubles, the viewer starts to elaborate a narrative that will give the meaning and logic to the killings that the film resolutely denies us: for instance, we might read them in terms of a “cycle of violence,” “tit for tat killings” performed alternately by Loyalists and Republicans. An elephant never forgets. But in that the film has forced us, its audience, to come up with these clichés, it has also foregrounded the extent to which all discourse about terrorism is imposed upon events and bodies that otherwise stop interpretation short.

Even, in the end, the judgment that such killings are “senseless” (as they are so often described in hackneyed journalistic reports) is itself part of a narrative that aims to give sense to what otherwise subverts the distinction between sense and senselessness.

(At this point let me add a heartfelt recommendation of Robert McLiam Wilson’s Eureka Street, an extraordinary novel that also makes the point that terror is most fundamentally narrative’s interruption.)

Gus Van Sant’s movie Elephant was inspired by Clarke’s film. Unlike its predecessor, Van Sant’s movie does feature dialogue. But what’s interesting here is the way in which language becomes no more than sound, for instance in the scene with the girl in the swimming pool. Van Sant perhaps points to another possible source of Clarke’s title, Bernard MacLaverty’s description of the Troubles as like having an elephant in your living room: so incomprehensible that directly addressing the issue is impossible. All the talk around violence inevitably misses its point(lessness).

One could say much more along these lines about the killing of Jean de Menezes. I don’t buy either the state’s self-justification or the left’s critique of the state. The left seeks explanation by invoking cover-ups, racism, or conspiracy theories. The police and government declare that the shooting in Stockwell was a “tragic mistake.” But the distinction between truth and error, innocent and guilty, intention and accident, is now strictly undecidable in our contemporary control society.