Katheryn Bigelow and Pop Anti-Analysis

Earlier this month, a FOIA request yielded another hundred pages of documents relating to the CIA’s collaboration with the filmmakers behind Zero Dark Thirty. As is customary when these things happen, the typical response included a few recurring threads. The first is film and culture writers tripping over each other to declare that there’s nothing unseemly about the CIA having veto power over a “first draft of history” like a big Hollywood film. See, the CIA cares about accuracy, which probably explains all those spies in newsrooms. The second is that “It might have been one thing if the finished film was unrepentant pro-CIA propaganda,” but the main character squirted a few at the end. That basically makes the film anti-war–and man, the CIA accidentally made an anti-war movie, those guys must be even more inept than we thought!

The third trope in all these is the idea that critics are actually censors. For instance, in 2013, a couple former ACLU directors wrote a letter to the New York Times arguing that Americans should watch Zero Dark Thirty in order to make up their own minds about CIA torture. As Tarzie wrote at the time:

Oh mercy me, no. Congress mustn’t interfere, via polite letters, with the free artistic expression of CIA operatives and their Hollywood collaborators. How else but through manipulative, formulaic films with scrappy CIA heroines can we, as a society, determine whether torture and extrajudicial killing are good or really good?

Now, in 2015, a Katheryn Bigelow quote I hadn’t seen at the time is getting a second life, and it’s worth highlighting. A couple years ago, Bigelow claimed that “confusing depiction with endorsement is the first step toward chilling any American artist’s ability and right to shine a light on dark deeds.” “Confusing depiction with endorsement,” according to Bigelow, is the first step to chilling speech. From what I can tell, Bigelow is the first Hollywood millionaire to shift the evils of censorship from doing something to thinking something critical. The slippery slope that ends with the Bill of Rights in flames now begins in the critic’s mind.

There’s been a strain of thought that holds that viewers can only read a film based on statements of the author’s intent, which are passed down with God-like clarity as though they’re the 10 Commandments or something. According to the anonymous author behind the blog “Fables of Faubus,” this idea was first articulated in a modern way by Walter Benn Michaels and Stephen Knapp in their article Against Theory, which argued that a text’s “meaning is whatever its author intends.” The writer points out that Michaels and Knapp are “extremely prescriptive” about the fact that most theory-based analysis should end. The anonymous author also points out that their idea found purchase in left-liberal literary journals that were (at least) the spiritual heirs to a lot of the CIA-funded magazines of the cultural Cold War. At the very least, it’s easy to see why this idea would enjoy the patronage of capital. The idea that people shouldn’t place any stock in their own judgment or substantive analysis, but trust the word of millionaires and their corporate benefactors, is a recipe for propaganda going unchallenged.

If this idea can be called “anti-analysis,” then in the last 5 or so years we’ve seen the rise of pop anti-analysis. When The Dark Knight Rises came out, for instance, there was a lot of commentary on the villain’s Occupy-inspired imagery. Chris Nolan’s responses to the threat of unprofitable controversy were classic pop anti-analysis:

  • “I’ve had as many conversations with people who have seen the film the other way round. We’re going to get wildly different interpretations of what the film is supporting and not supporting, but it’s not doing any of those things.”
  • “It’s just telling a story.”
  • “But what’s politics?”

Who’s to say, like, what politics even IS, anyway? Touché, Chris. Nolan touches on a lot of the tropes of pop anti-analysis, but Bigelow popularized one that he missed. This is one of the central planks: the idea that depiction doesn’t equal endorsement. Like other threads in this tapestry, endorsement vs. depiction is something that depends largely on the artist’s intentionality. The singular focus on “endorsement” removes the text from the realm of analysis and places it into the filmmaker’s mind. Since none of us have access, we just have to take their word for it. And if the artist’s mind can have supernatural power over the meaning of the film, then it’s plausible that the skeptical viewer’s mind has the power to send well-meaning, transparency-minded artists like Bigelow to the gulag.

Of course, last week it came out that the FBI believes that retweets are endorsements–meaning that merely depicting something uncritically won’t save you from getting 20+ years on a material support charge. Hollywood’s going to keep putting out propaganda, and defending it by arguing that no one can draw their own conclusions. The spies and secret police thugs who help them make these films don’t buy that, though, and neither should anyone else.

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Postscript/Personalish Note: If anyone is interested in these liberal war films and the types of discourses around them, I’m working on a book on the subject. I’m done with research and have put together drafts of a couple chapters, so it looks like it’s finally moving towards becoming something real. It’ll obviously be in at least e-book form, but if enough people are interested I may have a few hard copies printed up. I’ll keep people posted around here.

The Work of Revelations: Snowden, the Torture Report, and the Diminishing Returns of Info-Spectacles

“An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come,” wrote Victor Hugo. Isn’t that ultimately the message of Les Misérables? In contrast to the revolutionaries hopelessly slaughtered en masse at the barricades, it’s Jean Valjean’s unimpeachable righteousness alone that ultimately drives his longtime tormentor to suicide. I dreamed a dream…

Rather than just being the domain of French Romantics and office motivational posters, the notion that information alone has transformative power is the cornerstone of establishment left thinking. It stems from liberal enlightenment ideals that configure history as a linear progression—embodied in the apocryphal quote about the moral arc of the universe. It goes one way, and that’s forwards towards progress. This coincides happily with the preponderance of lawyers in the ranks of mainstream human rights and civil liberties groups, for whom information is the sine qua non of preparing briefs and mounting cases.

There’s a more controversial theory that information isn’t inherently good. Even revelatory information—stuff the powerful don’t want you to know—ostensibly in the service of a progressive goal, can be used for right-wing ends if it obscures or moderates a more radical prescription. If information is getting used to co-opt a more radical course of action, then that project is reactionary.

For its part, progressive e-magazine TruthDig doesn’t want people messing with this line of thinking in the case of the Senate Torture report: “When the truth is spoken by politicians…skeptics are right to suspect it’s not merely the truth. It is always tailored to redound to some benefit to the speaker. But there are moments in history when that doesn’t matter.”

We’re being told it’s one such moment now. The Senate Intelligence Committee has released a heavily redacted, heavily abridged “Executive Summary” of its 6,000 page report on CIA torture. Adding to the report’s mystique is the fact that the White House and CIA wanted to suppress the information contained within, with the CIA even hacking the computers of Senate staffers compiling the report. The torture report seems like the most illicit kind of revelatory information, so it’s created an enormous amount of commentary and condemnation.

However, with the exceptions of some specific ghoulish details, most of the information was already known. The most horrific facts—that the CIA raped prisoners, that torture was used to fabricate justifications for the War in Iraq, that human beings were tortured to death, that almost a quarter of torture cases were the result of mistaken identity—had all been reported on within the last decade.

There’s a disconnect between the content of the torture report and the narrative that now surrounds the event itself. When TruthDig called for putting skepticism aside, it was in a piece hailing Senators Dianne Feinstein and John McCain as their progressive heroes of the week. Feinstein’s fingerprints are on many of the US’s worst abuses of this century, and McCain is one of the most bloodthirsty figures in the US government, and by extension the planet. Given that these newly minted progressive heroes are some of the worst imperialists, and the torture report’s aura doesn’t reflect reality, this seems like exactly the right moment for those meddlesome skeptics to be asking questions.

The journalists and public figures who promote the torture report present it as transformative information, but it’s shaping up to be a spectacle that sets the left back yet again. The report has followed many parallels with the last time this happened, the spectacle surrounding Ed Snowden’s leaks to Glenn Greenwald et al. The Snowden drama provided a useful template for how dissent is going to be managed, channeled, and moderated going forward. The way the NSA leaks were handled has provided the elites a scalable model for taking the release of even revelatory information and using it to come out on top and consolidate their power.

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Fortunately, last October Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media had an acrimonious public divorce with once-hire Matt Taibbi. If Taibbi had been someone with less social capital, then the failure of Racket might’ve just been a momentary hiccup for the internet’s hottest journalistic “insurgency.” As it stands, the fact that people want to be in Taibbi’s orbit has opened up a lot of space for analysis of Omidyar’s would-be media empire, where the establishment consensus was once airtight. It’s certainly vindicated what Taibbi said about journalists being akin to an easily spooked herd of deer, who only get around to asking the right questions “eventually. But far after the fact.”

When the leaks began, they painted a complete picture of a monster whose contours had only previously been hinted at. Stories about warrantless wiretapping and the size of “Top Secret America” had won their authors Pulitzers and hinted that the US government was spying on all of us. There were reports of a secret government data-storage facility of gargantuan proportions being built in Utah. Stories had periodically cropped up in unexpected places about the government’s ability to record and store all our communications. However, now the public knew the truth definitively. There was excitement, talk of change, reform, maybe even something more drastic. Soon, the whistleblower went public. More stories came out, about more countries. Continue reading

The Mysteries of Deep States

Following the military’s overthrow of Egypt’s first democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi, the New York Times has reported that a “miraculous” restoration of civil services hints at an intentional campaign to undermine the Muslim Brotherhood government. The Times writes:

As the interim government struggles to unite a divided nation, the Muslim Brotherhood and Mr. Morsi’s supporters say the sudden turnaround proves that their opponents conspired to make Mr. Morsi fail. Not only did police officers seem to disappear, but the state agencies responsible for providing electricity and ensuring gas supplies failed so fundamentally that gas lines and rolling blackouts fed widespread anger and frustration.

“This was preparing for the coup,” said Naser el-Farash, who served as the spokesman for the Ministry of Supply and Internal Trade under Mr. Morsi. “Different circles in the state, from the storage facilities to the cars that transport petrol products to the gas stations, all participated in creating the crisis.”

Despite coming to power through the freest elections in Egyptian history, Mr. Morsi was unable to extend his authority over the sprawling state apparatus, and his allies complained that what they called the “deep state” was undermining their efforts at governing.

The Times presents compelling evidence that behind-the-scenes in Egypt, bureaucrats and private factions acted in concert to undermine the basic functions of government, with the aim of fomenting public support for the military coup which ended up ousting Morsi. The “deep state” is inextricably embedded within the structures of government and willing to undermine civilian rule in order to protect its interests. A deep state with this makeup has disturbing ramifications: an amorphous, undemocratic shadow government will harm, terrorize and deprive the citizens it ostensibly serves if it perceives its interests to be threatened. It’s one of those ideas that we as Americans would prefer to think happens in Those Countries Over There™. However, there are parallels to a chilling series of reports from early in Barack Obama’s presidency that hints at the power and depth of America’s own deep state. Continue reading