Pre-Prison Writings II

gramsci_pre-prison-writingsThe Gramsci of these pre-prison writings would probably surprise readers whose acquaintance with Gramsci’s thought is only casual, however much they may quote one of two of his bon mots (“pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will”; “the old is dying and the new cannot be born”) or even however much they deploy the concepts associated with him, from “hegemony” to the “subaltern” or the notion of “organic intellectuals” and so on. In fact, it may well turn out that the vast majority of those who quote Gramsci are casual acquaintances at best, who might be unpleasantly surprised if they were ever to read a little more. This in itself need not of course damn either Gramsci or even those concepts. As I suggested previously, it is hard to see Gramsci as a particularly systematic thinker (which is not to say that he didn’t see himself as such), and maybe that’s a good thing, too. We could take what we want from him, without having to buy into everything else that might come with it. Indeed, at this point perhaps that’s the only way to read Gramsci productively: selectively, unfaithfully, even treacherously. Rather than trying to reconstruct “what Gramsci thought” by careful attention to history or philology (this is the approach of many of the faithful few careful readers of his work), he merits rather something of a smash and grab raid. Or, as Deleuze famously said of his critiques of the philosophical tradition (Hume, Nietzsche, Kant, Leibniz, etc.), it would be a matter of taking him “from behind and giving him a child that would indeed be his but would nonetheless be monstrous.”

The biggest surprise in this early Gramsci is, I think, his emphatic economic determinism. It may be that this shouldn’t surprise us… he is a Marxist, after all! But given especially that our Gramsci is so much shaped by cultural studies and particularly by Laclau and Mouffe, who explicitly champion him for going the farthest (if not, for them, far enough) in renouncing all determinisms–this, they tell us in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, is the basis of their theorization of hegemony, whose history they chart in terms of a tendency to renounce the priority of the economic–the bluntness here of Gramsci’s economism is surely a bit of a shock.

At the outset of his essay “The Factory Council” (of June, 1920), for instance, Gramsci gives us what is essentially a version of Marxism 101, which is worth quoting at length:

The proletarian revolution is not the arbitrary act of an organization that declares itself to be revolutionary, or of a system of organizations that declare themselves to be revolutionary. The proletarian revolution is an extremely long-term historical process that manifests itself in the emergence and development of certain productive forces (which we may sum up by the term “proletariat”) within a certain historical context (which we may sum up by the terms “regime of private property, capitalist mode of production, factory system, organization of society in a democratic-parliamentary State”). At a certain point in this process, the new productive forces are no longer able to develop or organize themselves in an autonomous fashion within the official framework of the human community of the time. It is in this phase that the revolutionary act occurs. This consists in a violent effort to smash apart this existing framework and to destroy the entire apparatus of economic and political power within which the revolutionary productive forces had been trapped. It consists in a violent effort to shatter the machinery of the bourgeois State and to construct a new kind of State within whose framework the newly liberated productive forces can develop and expand; whose organization provides them with strong defences and the necessary and sufficient arms to eliminate their enemies. (163)

There is not much of the “war of position” or the struggle for “hegemony” on the terrain of “civil society” to be found here! And again, I wonder how many of today’s “Gramscians” would happily sign up to this description of the revolutionary process (if indeed they would sign up to any notion of revolution), which Gramsci simply presents as established fact.

As for politics, Gramsci similarly gives us what he himself describes as a “fundamental (and elementary) canon of historical materialism,” that “Any form of political power can only be historically conceived and justified as the juridical apparatus of a real economic power” (168). “Real” power is always and only economic. It is, to use Marx’s famous formula in his preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, the base or “real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.” The economic is primary; the political is very much secondary. Hence (back to Gramsci) “the revolutionary process takes place on the terrain of production, in the factory” (164). The revolution will not come about by political decree: “Communism as a system of new social relations [. . .] cannot be introduced by legislative or administrative means” (177). There is little if any room for any autonomy of the political.

Indeed, any political organization may call itself Communist or revolutionary all it likes, but so long as its activity is not premised on the economic base, specifically what is going on in the factory (as the most advanced expression of material forces), it hinders rather than furthers the goal of real social change. This, then, is the point at which Gramsci breaks from the Italian Socialist Party, as he criticizes all such organizations–even “revolutionary” organizations–that “have grown up on the terrain of bourgeois democracy and political liberty, as affirmation and developments of this political liberty” (164). Here, “the traditional structure of the Socialist Party is no different from that of any other party which has grown up on the terrain of liberal democracy” (174). It is, as such, overly invested in politics, in that its “lifeblood” is “the desire to win a majority in the popular assemblies [. . .] and to win this majority by the method that is proper to democracy–by reeling off generic and muddled policies to the electorate (and swearing to put them in practice at all costs)” (174-5). Politics, in short, is part of the problem; the effort to win over an electorate is a distraction from the real matter at hand. It is retrograde and even barbaric: “The Assembly[,] the form of political association that corresponds to the State based on territorial boundaries [. . .] is a continuation of the arrangements of the barbaric peoples who expressed their sovereignty by beating their pikes on the ground and howling” (175). If anything, any true revolution will be a revolution against politics, certainly against any politics that is not immediately rooted in the economic and material base.

Gramsci’s position thus far seems far from what is usually taken to be the struggle for what will become known as “hegemony” (a term that Gramsci is still not using at this stage), which tends to be identified not only in practice with the construction of electoral coalitions but also in theory with political autonomy and what Louis Althusser will come to describe (in part, following what he saw as Gramsci’s lead) as “overdetermination.”

In fact, the revolutionary process that Gramsci describes here often (if intermittently) has more in common with posthegemony than hegemony. Beneath consciousness and evading representation, it develops “in the darkness of the factory and in the darkness of the minds of the countless multitudes [delle moltitudini sterminate] that capitalism subjects to its laws. The process is not something that can be controlled or documented at this stage” (164). It comprises, moreover, “feelings, desires, habits, the stirrings of initiative and a new way of life [i sentimenti, le velleità, le abitudini, i germi di iniziativa e di costume]” (164). Affect, habit, multitude. Almost all the elements are here. Moreover, “initiative” in the essays of this period tends to replace the notion of “spirit” that, in his earlier writings, indicated the expansive movement of something like constituent power.

In fact, Gramsci refers explicitly to a constituent impulse in an article on “Two Revolutions” that is perhaps the most interesting piece in the collection so far, and which also contains the germ of what will come to be a theory of hegemony. For it is here that the Communist Party is described as something more than an appendage to forms of organization that arise, quasi-organically, within the factory. Here, indeed, the party’s role is to bind together the “two revolutions” of this article’s title. The first of these revolutions is political, or even anti-political in that its energies are directly primarily against political institutions. It “tends to be prevalently anarchic and destructive in character: to take the form of a blind explosion of rage, a tremendous outpouring of furious undirected passions” (169). But it is not solely destructive: it may lead to a “constituent assembly”; “it may go so far as to create soviets, the autonomous political organization of the proletariat and the other oppressed classes” (169). Yet this is not enough. For this merely political revolution is not yet the Communist revolution, whose shape is determined by the relations and conditions of production. It is this second revolution that establishes the factory (not the assembly) as “the basic unit of the new State” and “build[s] the new State in a way that reflects the industrial relations of the factory system” (170). And it is then the Party’s role to articulate these two revolutionary impulses, the political and the economic: to “create the conditions in which the revolution as destruction of the bourgeois State can be identified with the proletarian revolution, the revolution that is to expropriate the expropriators and initiate the development of a new order in the relations of production and distribution” (171). And surely this then is the struggle for what will become known as hegemony, the project to “create the conditions in which the proletarian revolution may be identified with the popular revolt against the bourgeois State” (171). Neither strictly speaking political, nor the direct emanation of economic forces, it is the role of the Party as would-be hegemonic power to bind economics to politics.

I will leave to one side how faithfully this is later transcribed or translated in the early work of Laclau (in Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory) into an articulation between the “people-power bloc contradiction” and the more properly economic contradiction between proletariat and bourgeoisie. But suffice it to say that the necessity for this articulation reveals a problem in the basic assumptions of the base-superstructure model that Gramsci otherwise never questions. For the Party, and its hegemonic project, appears as a supplement that does not derive fully from the economic processes inherent to the new forms of organization within the factory system. Gramsci can neither live with determinism nor can he relinquish it. Ultimately, Laclau’s path will be to drop any priority of the economic, to usher in a vision of the world in which everything is politics (and all politics is one modality or other of popular revolt). But surely there are other options.

If we are to recover a posthegemonic Gramsci, perhaps a first step would be to refuse the dichotomy that he asserts between politics and economics. After all, it is only because he sees such a stark distinction between the “two revolutions” he describes that he feels the need to call upon the Party to suture that gap. But it may be even more to the point to observe that the “feelings, desires, habits, the stirrings of initiative and a new way of life” are neither fully political nor fully economic, though they may be both the consequence and condition of politics and economics alike.

Quién quiere ser madre

nanclares_madre

The title of Silvia Nanclares’s book, Quién quiere ser madre–“Who Wants to be Mother”–is ambiguous, hovering somewhere between statement and question. On the one hand, it could be read as a phrase in apposition with the name of the author, describing and qualifying her: “Silvia Nanclares, who wants to be mother.” On the other hand, the pronoun “quien” (“who”) carries an accent, which in Spanish indicates that it is part of a question, the issue still up in the air: “Who wants to be mother?” Yet there is no question mark. We might imagine, then, the phrase to be grammatically incomplete, indicating an indirect question dependent on a missing main verb that readers have to supply for themselves: Tell me (perhaps) or I wonder or I don’t know “who wants to be mother.” The question itself, then, would be the object of enquiry.

And so it is that the book unfolds, following the efforts of one Silvia Nanclares to conceive as she enters her forties. Having, like so many of her generation of young(ish), middle-class professionals, postponed parenthood for the sake of career and (other forms of) life experience, she suddenly feels that it is now or never as she hears her “biological clock” ticking ever louder. She is motivated also by starting a relationship with a man with whom she can (finally) imagine herself having a child. But perhaps above all by the fact that her father has just died, which gets her to thinking about parenthood and inheritance, the passage of time and the transmission of life. Ever since his death, she wants to tell her mother (but doesn’t), she can “think about nothing else” (85). Indeed, the book is the story of an obsession–a personal obsession that is also both generational and cultural–with the idea of becoming a mother. As such, this is at the same time the story of what often feels like madness, of a longing that Nanclares can never be quite sure is really her own.

My student, Olga Albarrán, has written about this longing in her excellent dissertation, (Pro)Creación: Discursos de la maternidad. But let me add a few thoughts…

The question “Who wants to be mother?” (as opposed to “Who wants to be a mother?”) suggests a social situation, a dinner maybe, at which no mothers are actually present. Who wants to be mother… who wants to take on the role that mothers so often take or are assigned, such as serving out the food? It tells us that motherhood is precisely that: a role, a performance, a function in the domestic economy that could be fulfilled by others (even if it usually isn’t). Motherhood is, in short, both a cultural construction and also a form of play-acting, in which you are not being (quite) true to yourself. Perhaps this, too, is why Nanclares fears becoming a mother as much as she obsessively desires it: because it would mean becoming other, giving up on some sense of herself as independent, in control, self-defining. Becoming a mother, after all, would mean succumbing to the script that she and her thirty- or forty-something friends had hoped they had escaped. It would mean becoming (like) their own mothers.

But as much as motherhood is a cultural construction, it is also still stubbornly biological, as Nanclares is soon very much aware. Month after month she finds that she is not (yet) pregnant, even though she and her boyfriend try, with ever more dedication, to do everything right: she researches the details of the process of insemination, fertilization, implantation, and what can go wrong and how; she learns to discern the days that she is ovulating and the period when she is most fertile; the two of them install apps on their phones to help them calculate (and remind them) when they should get to their procreative “duties”; she takes folic acid, and they both strive to eat better and live healthier; they consult dieticians and doctors, and investigate the possibilities of artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization. The biological fact that they run into such difficulties conceiving drives them increasingly back towards culture: to the advice and folk remedies of friends and family; to online discussion forms and self-help groups; and to technology and the healthcare system. But above all it prompts Nanclares to write.

Writing, she tells us, is “once again, what will save [her] from all obsessions” (93). It is the only way she knows of praying (14). But perhaps most importantly, it is her job: as a magazine journalist, she “live[s] from writing” (189). And if she can’t have a baby, at least she can write about the process of trying to have one. For always intertwined with her biological and personal uncertainties (will she get pregnant? Does she really want to?) is the tale of her employment insecurity and economic precarity, in the aftermath of the financial crisis that rocked Spain more than almost any other European country. She and her friends have postponed motherhood for the sake of careers and independence, but in fact in the context of neoliberal austerity there are no more careers, and they are forever dependent on the next grant, the next freelance contract, the next opportunity to tide them over to the next paycheck. Perhaps this is precisely the reason why when Nanclares writes (in the first instance, in an entry on Facebook) about her frustrated attempts to conceive, she seems to touch a nerve and her post goes viral. Her editor takes an interest, encouraging her to write a blog, perhaps she can have a regular column, a permanent contract.

Nanclares is torn: does she really want to expose her and her boyfriend’s problems in this way? And perversely, the longer her tribulations, the more material she’ll have to write about. But to “find [her]self out of work now,” more than ever, “would be fatal” (133). She’s capitalizing on (monetizing) her own infertility, but in the end that’s all she has to fall back on. The conjunction of her father’s death and the loss of jobs for life and the safety net of the welfare state teach her that “at a certain point, we are body. Nothing but our bodies” (141). If other young women market their eggs (and men, their sperm) to survive, Nanclares can sell what she imagines as her own dried-up ovaries (like “raisins”). In a sort of bioeconomics, she is making her private life productive, even if it means selling out her friends’ privacy, too: one tersely texts her, “When I asked you not to say a word about my embryo transfer, I didn’t mean that you could tell all the newspaper’s subscribers about it” (151).

And so the blog that Nanclares is writing is (inevitably) entitled “Quién quiere ser madre,” and we discover by the end of the book (spoiler alert!) that she still hasn’t got pregnant but that she has, well, finished this book, which she describes with the terminology of natural reproduction: it “gestated for thirty-eight weeks, from the middle of November, 2015, to the beginning of September, 2016” (213). She has also given up (for the time being, at least) on the reproductive pact that she signed with her boyfriend at the outset of her quest. Indeed, she seems to have given up on pacts in general and to have embraced the uncertainty that otherwise plagues her throughout the narrative: “Life designed and controlled as a future plan doesn’t exist,” she tells us, adding that this is a lesson learned from her “father when he left us without any prior notice” (211). So Nanclares tries to make this moral a universal one, of life and death as the timeless condition of the cosmos. But there’s no doubt that it is a conclusion more quickly drawn by millennials today than by previous generations. And perhaps the fashion for so-called “autofiction” such as Nanclares’s novel (but also, for instance, Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle) is a way of trying to come to terms with that: when all else is precarious, at least I can still write my self and my habits into being.

Truth or Justice?

harvard_crest

My friend Pablo Policzer, hearing of my interest in questioning the priority of truth in politics (and, indeed, elsewhere) sends me a link to a talk by Jonathan Haidt: “Why Universities Must Choose One Telos: Truth or Social Justice”. And he asks me “Have you gone conservative?”

Now, Haidt claims that there are two competing “teloi” in the modern university: truth and social justice. He makes Mill the flagbearer of the cause of truth, and Marx the inspiration for calls for justice. He argues that right now the movement towards social justice is increasing, and that at some point universities will have to make a decision: “I believe that the conflict between truth and social justice is likely to become unmanageable. Universities will have to choose, and be explicit about their choice, so that potential students and faculty recruits can make an informed choice.”

In fact, of course, for Haidt this is no choice at all: he sees social justice as contaminating the historic mission of higher education, not least because (in his view) it leads to increasing homogenization and decreasing diversity. Social justice, he tell us, is “incompatible with political diversity, since many conservative ideas and speakers are labeled as threatening and banned from campus and the curriculum.”

Now, as it happens myself I don’t think that the raison d’être of the university is either truth or justice, though both are better than the neoliberal logic that has entrenched itself in much of higher education. (And let’s leave aside for the moment the fact that Haidt seems compelled to add the qualifier “social” to justice as though that already delegitimated it; or that his complaints reek to high heaven of bad faith.) But let us say Haidt were right: if we had to choose between truth and justice, is there any real reason not to choose the latter?

 

Ramiro Gómez, “Happy Hills”

Ramiro Gómez, "Yoselin and the glass of water"

Thanks to Kinsey Lane Sullivan in PolicyMic for her profile of Ramiro Gómez, a Los Angeles artist and (ex?)nanny whose ongoing project “Happy Hills” is devoted to “documenting the predominantly Hispanic workforce who work tirelessly behind the scenes to maintain the beautiful imagery of these affluent areas.”

Gómez’s technique involves a) installations featuring cardboard cut-outs of otherwise overlooked service workers (leaf-blowers, cleaners, nannies) in public places and so plain sight and b) interventions into images of pristine homes, taken mostly from magazines and adverts (but also occasionally high art) to reinsert the figures of domestic labour that have been erased or marginalized but without whom none of this would exist.

I particularly like this image, “Portrait of an Affluent Family”:

Ramiro Gómez, "Portrait of an Affluent Family"

The funny thing is that, according to a note on Gómez’s Facebook page, so does the man pictured with his family. I’m not entirely sure what we can gather from that.

Detroit in Ruins (Again)

Detroit is in ruins again. Here’s Juan Cole on the recent petition for bankruptcy, on the relationship between the city and the country as a whole, and on the fact that Detroit’s crisis is contemporary, not merely historical:

The 1% did a special number on southeast Michigan with its derivatives and unregulated mortgage markets; the 2008 crash hit the region hard, and it had already been being hit hard. The Detroit area is a prime example of the blight that comes from having extreme wealth (Bloomfield Hills, Grosse Pointe) and extreme poverty (most of Detroit) co-existing in an urban metropolitan area. It doesn’t work. The wealthy have no city to play in, and the city does not have the ability to tax or benefit from the local wealthy in the suburbs. These problems are exacerbated by de facto racial segregation, such that African-Americans are many times more likely to be unemployed than are whites, and to live in urban blight rather than in nice suburbs.

Meanwhile, the Guardian took this as the opportunity to publish yet another slideshow of the city’s fabulous ruins. Their aesthetic appeal is meant, I think, as some kind of compensation for the devastation that they document. But it’s not insignificant that these images are depopulated, empty of all but material detritus: the human toll of this ruination is registered and elided at the same time. Here’s “the ballroom of the 15-floor art-deco Lee Plaza Hotel, an apartment building with hotel services built in 1929 and derelict since the early 1990s”:

Detroit ballroom

mutiny!

Edmund Fuller’s edited collection Mutiny! The Most Dramatic Accounts of the Great Mutinies–On Land and Sea–of All Times was published in 1953, and you can tell. In fact, most of the individual contributions were written in the 1920s and 1930s (1907 in the case of the account of the mutiny against Henry Hudson). Hence there is much talk of “tittle-tattle” muttered by dastardly “curs” against “true-hearted Englishmen.” We are in most cases to sympathize with the beleaguered authorities and to despise the knaves who conspire against them.


Still, Fuller’s introduction, “The Nature of Mutiny,” is of some interest, and undercuts (perhaps better, explains) the fierce dichotomies that will follow. For in Fuller’s view, “mutiny is apt to have an intimate, familial quality about it” (xii). In other words, the opprobrium heaped on mutineers comes from the trauma of discovering yourself betrayed by your most intimate companions.

Hence there is an affective distinction between mutiny and revolution:

A man seldom knows personally, or is associated with, the people against whom he is moving in revolution. In most cases of mutiny a man not only is acquainted with, but is in some manner of working relationship with the persons against whom the mutiny is directed. (xii)

Moreover, this is why the shipboard mutiny is paradigmatic: at sea, men are confined together in close quarters for months or even years. And this forced intimacy is two-sided: “It can increase tensions by the inability of people to separate from each other. At the same time it offers a closeness well adapted to conference and conspiracy” (xiii).

Fuller makes a couple of other points. First, he wants to distinguish mutiny from labor disputes. Mere refusal to serve is not mutiny; it is a strike. I think the point here is that a labor dispute is not a wholesale assault on constituted power. Myself, I wonder how far this distinction can be upheld. And second, he argues that the days of mutiny are in effect over: “To all intents and purposes the traditional mutiny at sea has gone out of existence. It died with sails. Technology ended the era of mutiny” (xi). By this he means that mutiny can no longer be sustained, as there is no place to hide: “it just is not practical any longer to try to seize a ship and take it over on an impromptu basis. There’s no future in it” (xi). And indeed its striking that may of the mutinies described took place so far from home that the mutineers could either try to disappear (as in the case of the Bounty) or could spend the long homeward voyage perfecting the stories they would tell before the coming courts martial (as in the case of the mutiny against Henry Hudson).

More importantly, however, Fuller suggests that it is the massification and division of labor that makes mutiny impossible on a modern ship: a few renegades may be able to take hold of a sailship, but “to seize a steamship is another story. It would take a full complement capable of the necessary engineering skills involved” (xi).

In short, for Fuller at least, mutiny is pre-industrial. It involves betrayal within the family (or the gang, the tribe) rather than insubordination from the masses within the workplace.

performativity

Zorro posterAnother day, another Zorro movie. And Alain Delon’s Zorro comes with a cheery theme song, courtesy of Oliver Onions. I defy you to listen to it (and you can find a clip here) and not feel, well, something. And the lyrics…

Here’s to you and me
Here’s to being free
La la la laaa la la
Zorro’s back.

Now, c’mon, what more do you want?

This 1975 version takes the Zorro story from California and transports it to some generic tropical Latin American locale. The skies are blue, the nights are humid, the aristocrats and their servants are baroque and bewigged, the people are enslaved, and, yes, Zorro is back. Indeed, the sequence showing his arrival is splendid: in the middle of a scene taken directly from the 1920 Douglas Fairbanks movie, in which a priest is whipped for allegedly selling underweight goods, parallel edits show the dark figure of the masked avenger gradually coming into focus silhouetted against the azure sky. “Enough!” he declaims. “I want to show you what justice is.”

Power is ever more centrally at issue in this version of the story. Power and its disguises. For here Zorro is the outcome of a double disguise: Alain Delon’s character, Don Diego, whose real origin and role are murky, first stands in for the governor Miguel de la Serna, murdered at the outset by the dastardly Colonel Huerta, before he subsequently also transforms himself into the bandit with a conscience.

Don Diego therefore impersonates both legitimate power (as his Excellency the governor) and illegitimate counter-power (as the masked brigand). In both roles, however, he is restrained from violence by his promise to the dying de la Serna, in which he swore to uphold the good governor’s ideals. Only in the climactic final scene, in which Huerta cold-bloodedly kills the (same) priest, Brother Francisco, to avert a social revolution, does Zorro feel that he is released from that promise. Huerta is duly despatched, albeit after a protracted fight sequence.

Zorro on his horse in the desertThen, in marked contrast with Tyrone Power’s incarnation, Zorro rides off into the distance, leaving behind even his love interest, the fair (if somewhat ornery) Contessina Ortensia Pulido.

This is, in short, a much less territorialized Zorro than either the 1920 or (particularly) the 1940 outings.

The fictional territory in which the action takes place is named either Nueva Aragon or Nuova Aragona: the movie is uncertain even as to its linguistic affiliations, and is dubbed into English from what could quite possibly have been a Babelic confusion of languages used on set. The colonial outpost depicted is an (almost) any-space-whatever of 70s exoticism: it might as well be Mozambique or Tangiers. (The very similar Burn! was in fact shifted during production from the Spanish Empire to the Portuguese.) What’s important about the locale is that almost everything is out of place. This is a faux-European society imposed on the barren land of the Third World.

So no surprise that Zorro himself is very much a man of no fixed abode, a nomad who can only impersonate belonging. Here, almost everything is a matter of impersonation.

Don Diego and Colonel HuertaWhat’s highlighted is the very ridiculousness of colonial society. In fact, this is a theme that underlies all Zorro films, however much at the same time they attempt to naturalize and legitimate the ideal of a benevolent imperialism.

The films derive their comedy from the antics of Don Diego as fop (here magnificently realized in a scene in which the governor rises from his throne to greet the visiting Pulidos only immediately to trip and fall headfirst on the ground). And Don Diego, in his uselessness, idleness, and futility, is always typical of the ruling colonial class. Which is why, after all, he has to become Zorro, i.e. to step outside that class, in order to reform it.

But whether incarnated in Zorro or Don Diego (here, impersonating governor Miguel de la Serna), what Delon’s film more than any other underlines is the performativity of power.

[Meanwhile I note that Isabel Allende has written a Zorro novel. God help us all…]

(Crossposted from Latin America on Screen.)

corruption

movie posterTyrone Power’s Zorro fights for family honour and the restoration of benevolent patriarchy.

Unlike Douglas Fairbanks’s 1920 version, the 1940 remake depicts Empire, centre as well as periphery: the film opens with the young Diego de la Vega in Madrid, before he is called home to California. Spain, however, is in this portrayal some kind of cross between finishing school and holiday camp. There’s little sense that the colonial enterprise is a matter of economic and political power relations. Empire, in short, is not here seen as a problem.

What is problematic is when Empire is subject to corruption.

For The Mark of Zorro, colonialism can and should be essentially pacific. Diego tells his fellow “young blades” busy learning “the fine and fashionable art of killing” that nothing happens in California: it is a land, he reports, of “gentle missions, happy peons, sleeping caballeros, and everlasting boredom.” There “a man can only marry, raise fat children, and watch his vineyards grow.”

But on returning, Diego discovers that this idyllic somnolence has been disturbed, as his father the alcalde has been overthrown and in his place is installed the avaricious pretender Don Luis Quintero with Captain Esteban Pasquale serving as his vicious sidekick. Lear-like, Diego’s father Don Alejandro Vega has been humiliated, dispossessed, and subject to internal exile. The son therefore masquerades as the avenging Zorro in order to reinstall his emasculated progenitor.

Zorro kills PasqualeZorro’s violence (and he is violent in a way that Fairbanks’s character never is, killing his nemesis Pasquale with very little compunction indeed) is, as Julian Savage also argues, restorative rather than revolutionary. It’s a displaced violence, performed by the prodigal son rather than the father himself, so absolving the virtuous patriarch, who refuses to take up arms, of any taint of coercion.

With his father back as mayor, Diego can finally settle down with his new-found wife, to raise his own fat children and watch his own vineyards grow–though one presumes that they don’t grow far without some input from the “happy peons” and their labour power.

California, in short, and the Los Angeles in which the film’s action is specifically set, can return to being the California familiar from so much Hollywood output of this period: a place of relaxation and leisure, natural fertility and good living, fortunately somewhat removed from world events. Oh, and underpinned by unacknowledged Latino labour.

Powers as marine aviatorIt would not be long, though, before Power himself would have to gird up his fighting loins, first putting Hollywood on a war footing in an early World War II propaganda film, and then transforming himself from indolent matinée idol to man of war.

All very inspiring, no doubt. But why should we imagine that Hollywood either before or after the war was so very free from corruption?

(Crossposted from Latin America on Screen.)

transition

The superhero as double is common in Hollywood cinema. When he is not out saving the world, Superman takes refuge in his alter ego, the mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent. Batman is (and is not) the playboy Bruce Wayne. Spiderman and nerdy Daily Bugle photographer Peter Parker are one and (almost) the same.

Don DiegoBut before all these (indeed, anticipating them by twenty years) there was Zorro aka Don Diego de la Vega. As the Zorro Legend website points out, Johnston McCulley’s character, part foppish aristocrat, part avenging swordsman, echoes the Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel. In The Mark of Zorro, Douglas Fairbanks takes this literary doppelganger and makes of him what could well be Hollywood’s first superhero.

(William Stoddard also has a good review and discussion of McCulley’s book and the 1920 adaptation.)

ZorroZorro’s remit, however, is more local and more clearly political than that of most later superheroes. He’s not called in to save the world, but he does aim to change it. Lately returned from Spain to his native California, Don Diego is disgusted with the corruption of Spanish imperial power, a corruption manifest in mistreatment of Indians, of priests, and (what is worst of all) of the beautiful Señorita Lolita Pulido.

Zorro’s task is to rouse what has become a servile and languid creole aristocracy, and to goad them into ejecting the Spanish interloper from their shores.

Clearly, persuasion alone is not going to galvanize the Californian caballeros. Zorro aims to shame his fellows into action. The split between Don Diego, the fop rejected by the beauty Lolita, and Zorro, the dark knight who charms and impresses her with his hyper-masculine sword-thrusts, enacts the sexualized psychodrama of a quiescent upper class being beaten to the prize by new, mobile men of action. The lesson to be learned is immediately affective: the creole class lacks intensity; but shame could lead to revivified pride, and so to political significance at last.

The two aspects to Fairbanks’s character are therefore less different psychologically than they incarnate differing states of the body: tiredness vs. wakefulness; langour vs. vigilance; passivity vs. activity; quiescence vs. tumescence. And the film as a whole is a film of the transition, of the individual but also the collective shift from sedentariness to motility.

Fairbanks’s stunts (most of which he performed himself) are always exaggeratedly physical: his body describes ever more impressive arcs and leaps, jumping on to and over horses, over wagons and up walls. His characteristic movement is something like a sideways combined twist and turn and spring from a standing start.

At the same time, Zorro knows when to keep still. A favoured trick is to hide behind a bush, a door, or a wall, while a horde of pursuers blunder blindly past. It is not therefore movement per se that is valorized: it is the right combination of movement and rest. Zorro’s stillness is taught with the alert possibility of sudden movement at any moment. His body is a spring coiled and ready to leap. It is the instant of contraction before an explosive power is unleashed.

Zorro behind corner
Just a couple of decades after the US had dispossessed Spain of its last imperial possessions (Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines), and a couple of years after Europe had been suicidally bogged down in the First World War trenches, surely Zorro could also be seen as the image of US power ready to unfold. And his warning to Don Diego seen as a caution against the country’s resting on its new-found laurels. Fairbanks’s Zorro marks America’s transition as it becomes superpower.

(Crossposted from Latin America on Screen.)

hubris

In his Seven Theses on the Dinosaur, W. J. T. Mitchell argues that the dinosaur “symbolizes the power of the total state in its modern constitutional form.” And Gabriela Nouzeilles has shown how the Argentine state invoked Patagonian dinosaur remains to naturalize its claims of national autonomy and power.

But the creatures in Harry Hoyt’s classic silent The Lost World are a little more ambivalent.

Located in the heart of deepest, darkest Latin America, far up the Amazon somewhere at the confluence of Brazil, Colombia, and Peru, they certainly instantiate peripheral under-development.

ape manMoreover, these lumbering beasts occupy what is merely one end of a continuum: they share their plateau homeland with both apes and rather menacing apemen. Down below, in the tropical jungle, are snakes, alligators, sloths, and human “half-breeds,” the zambo half black, half Indian. Also left behind in camp, while the main exploring party go on above to search for signs of the previous expedition in the area, is Austin, an English domestic servant. The main party itself is divided between the old and more or less unfit (Professor Summerlee) and the young and nubile, not least the journalist Malone who proves his worth as a husband by braving the South American wilderness, so winning Paula White as female prize from the veteran explorer Sir John Roxton.

But this hierarchy is not entirely stable: Jocko, the pet monkey, is (as Summerlee is reminded) more useful than some of the human members of the group; and Professor Challenger himself often (as Deleuze and Guattari point out) appears half-simian, hirsute and hot-headed, becoming-animal in his enthusiasm and stubbornness, and, not least, his vitriol against the written word.

Moreover, if the Conan Doyle novel on which the movie is based frames Challenger’s expedition as a civilising mission, concluding with the apemen wiped out or enslaved and a client regime of grateful natives installed on the plateau, the film version differs sharply. Here, the “lost world” is devastated by a sudden volcanic eruption. One brontosaurus, however, escapes and is taken back to London–only there to escape again, cause mayhem in the streets, and collapse the iconic Tower Bridge, before, in the film’s final frames, heading back towards Latin America by sea.

brontosaurus at sea
At the head of the tradition of monster movies that it initiates (animator Willis O’Brien would go on to work on King Kong, in many ways a remake of this film), The Lost World introduces a preoccupation with the monster as a genie disturbed, its vengeance a return for modern hubris. In this, of course, Spielberg’s own Lost World is a true inheritor.

But if Spielberg’s emphasis is on the dangers of science over-reaching itself, is not Harry Hoyt’s theme imperial decline, his fear (and the fear radiated in the innumerable close-up reaction shots of Bessie Love playing Paula White) that of the untamed forces of what was once thought natural terrain for colonial intervention?

(Crossposted from Latin America on Screen.)