Saturday, August 15, 2009

Alien Nation

in on August 14, 2009

SOUTH AFRICAN–BORN DIRECTOR Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009) wants badly to be a film of the kind and caliber of Children of Men (2006): a thoughtful, left-leaning treatment of contemporary political issues that doubles as an accessible sci-fi thriller. The movie begins as a mock documentary, complete with talking heads and staged “archival” footage outlining a scenario in which aliens land in Johannesburg, their spaceship having run out of fuel during an escape from a disaster on another planet. The South African government, acting more out of concern for its image than the aliens’ wellbeing, takes them in as refugees and relocates them to District 9, a shantytown-cum–concentration camp, where they live under the custodianship of a corporation called Multi-National United. This expository sequence is essentially an expanded version of Blomkamp’s 2005 short Alive in Joburg, which uncannily reframed actual documentary footage of police brutality and anti-apartheid marches as science fiction.

District 9
departs from the Alive in Joburg storyline when it introduces Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a casually bigoted MNU official and the movie’s dim-witted protagonist. He is accidentally infected by an alien virus twenty-eight years after the events described in the prologue: The disease slowly transforms him into “one of them” and, conveniently, enables him to use the aliens’ coveted DNA-activated weaponry. Wikus is pursued by MNU’s private military, and in order to save his skin he forges an uncertain alliance with an alien father and son (though lacking any concept of private property, the aliens still form Spielbergian nuclear families), who agree to cure Wikus if he helps them to escape District 9.

The film’s political implications are clear, though its specifically post-apartheid resonances have understandably been lost on many American critics. Up to 8 percent of South Africa’s population are illegal immigrants, the largest contingent of which comprises refugees from the political violence and economic free-fall in neighboring Zimbabwe. The South African government has taken a harder line against illegal immigrants since the end of apartheid, with xenophobic rhetoric gaining traction in mainstream political discourse and deportations increasing almost 20 percent in the past five years alone.

An ersatz television news broadcast about anti-alien riots in District 9 alludes to the dramatic rise of violence against immigrants since democratization. Blomkamp was filming in Soweto in May 2008, when a series of devastating anti-immigration riots broke out across South Africa that killed over sixty people, a third of whom were naturalized citizens murdered because of racist sentiments fueled by xenophobia. (Immigrants from elsewhere in Africa are considered darker skinned than South African blacks.) District 9 itself recalls Lindela Repatriation Centre, the largest deportation processing camp in South Africa. A privately run, highly militarized facility that holds illegal immigrants awaiting deportation, Lindela has become South Africa’s Guantanamo Bay, its name synonymous with gruesome reports of detainee abuse, rapes, “accidental” deaths, indefinite detentions, and material deprivation.

More than mere stand-ins for illegal immigrants, Blomkamp’s repulsive, trash-eating, delinquent aliens function as abject manifestations of respectable society’s unspoken, paranoid fantasies about the lives of the poor. In one of the more direct real-life parallels, an interactive map on the marketing website for District 9 shows that the fictional alien camps are geographically coextensive with the impoverished township areas of Timbesa, Kartorus, and Soweto. Approximately a third of the population of South Africa inhabits such so-called slums, where half the residents live in improvised shacks made of spare wood and corrugated metal.

In District 9, Wikus’s grotesque physical transformation allegorizes anxieties that are as much about class as xenophobic racism, especially in a few scenes that focus on the surreal disruption of Wikus’s middle-class existence. In one, his teeth and fingernails begin to fall out as he works at his office desk; in another, the sight of him sends people screaming from a fast food restaurant. (Wikus, ever the bureaucrat, insists that it’s illegal for the restaurant to deny him service.) Wikus’s dilemma dramatizes the paranoia pervasive in a society that arbitrarily dehumanize whole sectors of its own population: the fear that anyone, at anytime, can become the reviled Other.

With so many trenchant ideas, it is a pity that the film abandons most of them in their larval stage. A needless subplot involving Nigerian gangsters undermines the film’s anti-xenophobic message. The delight that District 9 takes in depicting the slaughter of aliens and laughing at their grotesquerie plays too closely at the border between critique and mere symptom. Whereas Alive in Joburg featured performances by numerous South African township residents, District 9 lacks the visible involvement of those South Africans for whom it seems to want to speak. Yet such lapses are too predictable to spoil the film’s insights entirely, and its laudable lack of resolution at least ensures that audiences will leave theaters as disquieted as they are entertained.

District 9 opens August 14.

— Patrick Harrison

Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Abridged 'Branded to Kill' Video

My co-director has posted a rehearsal video of our play The Abridge 'Branded to Kill' on BlipTV. Enjoy!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Trust Theory: The Birbeck Communism Conference

As the rest of the speakers greeted each other on stage with warm effusions and European pecks on the cheek, literary critic Michael Hardt, the sole American-born speaker at the London conference, stood apart from the crowd. With folded arms, he gazed out not just into but somehow beyond the audience of the packed lecture hall.

Hardt's behavior seemed to be a defensive performance of self-sufficiency, as if to pre-empt his inevitable failure to fit in with the rest of the "glittering array of Continental academic rockstars," as Terry Eagleton put it, that had assembled that weekend for the conference titled "On the Idea of Communism." Nearly the entire emerging canon of (mostly male) contemporary Continental philosophers—including Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žižek, Jacques Rancière, Eagleton, and Antonio Negri, Hardt's mentor and collaborator—as well as their translators and champions in the English-language academy and a few other European notables less well known outside the Continent joined Hardt at the conference. Hardt's reputation has always been doubled by a secret tendency to diminutivize him in relation to Negri—his more famous (or notorious), frequently jailed co-author on Empire and Multitude—and it was hard not to regard Hardt in this light when one saw him onstage next to the old masters. Yet he seemed even more out of place among the rest the other scholars who, Eagleton quipped, had "married in" to the elite circles of Continental philosophy, a group that included the two Badiou scholars—Bruno Bosteels and Peter Hallward—who joined Hardt in the first panel of the conference.

Ironically, what separated Hardt from the rest of the speakers at the conference was his distinctly American desire for everybody to get along. "My usual response is always to agree with people," he began to respond to a member of the audience who criticized the lack of attention to cultural hierarchies in his concept of "the multitude." Hardt continued with a humorous litany of apologies and self-effacing concessions—"So my way of agreeing with you on this … and I could easily criticize myself for this … "—but was unable to convince the questioner that he was actually in agreement with her. His intellectual performance came straight out of the ramshackle, pleasantly inconclusive manner of American literary studies seminars, where discourse proceeds by dialogue, constructive criticism, and synthesis of a diversity of possible "readings" rather than by the militant "line struggle" favored by the Badiouvians with whom he shared the stage.

I had always dismissed Hardt, with the kind of macho contempt that comes from reading too much Žižek, as a crypto-liberal who was too politically weak, too theoretically softheaded, and just too American to be a genuine radical. And in person he proved to be every bit the doe-eyed naïf he seemed on the page. It is an index of the just how strong a disillusioning effect the conference had on me and my enthrallment with the Badiou-Žižek complex that, by the end of the three-day event, I had completely reversed my attitude towards Hardt. What I used to see as weakness in Hardt, by the end I saw as an unpretentious generosity which was sorely lacking in general vibe, More so than any shortcoming in the philosophical ideas presented at the conference, this lack in the performative mode of the event was its most serious failure.

+ + +

The premise of "On the Idea of Communism," which was hosted March 13-15 by the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, was to explore the possible positive meanings of the word "communism" for philosophical thinking. The conference would proceed neither by historical analysis of the past failure of "actually existing communism," nor by speculation on the practicalities of establishing communism in our time, but by a series of philosophical meditations on what Badiou has called "the communist hypothesis," that is, the hypothesis of an "eternal Idea" of radical egalitarianism that haunts every social order.

Žižek framed the conference by way of an analogy to Lenin. After the Second International failed to prevent the outbreak of World War, what did Lenin do? Retreat to neutral Switzerland to read Hegel's Logic. And this conference, Žižek declared, was to be the beginning of our retreat to read Hegel's Logic. "It's crucial to resist the urge to ‘Do something!'" he railed against those who'd rather join an NGO than stay cooped up in the library. "Now is the time to think! … Do not be afraid. Trust theory!" The response of the nearly 900-person audience was electric.

But, of course, how could it have failed to be? If this conference is remembered in the annals of intellectual history, it will be as the event that marked the official canonization of Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek as the latest in the order of great (in Žižek's case, honorary) French theorists. When Badiou spoke, stretching out his sentences with pedagogical grandeur, a hushed awe came over the crowd. And when Žižek hijacked the question and answer sessions to do his intellectual stand-up routine, even those who groaned at first could not help but be won over by his manic charm. The romance continued over offstage rather more awkwardly. As he was heading out the door after the final session of the conference, Žižek was mobbed for autographs by a gaggle of bespectacled fanboys. When one young man asked for a photo with him, Žižek responded "I hate photographs" and then posed, impassive and haggard, for a photo with the smiling fan. One student handed Žižek a petition that had something to do the arrest of a friend for civil disobedience. Before the young man could explain the details, Žižek exclaimed—"My god! Yes, of course!"—and signed the petition.

Underlying the general good feelings at the conference, however, were uglier traces of elitism and smug passivity. The audience was made up almost entirely of middle class, white academics (or academics-to-be), and if it was well balanced in terms of gender, a certain boy's club mentality of macho one-upmanship still prevailed. Snickers filled the air during questions that went on for too long or seemed insufficiently scholarly, and nearly everyone complained of the poor quality of the questions between sessions. Particularly distasteful was the way the audience shouted down a clearly terrified man who, his voice shaking as prefaced his remarks with endless apologies, tried to speak up in defense of capitalism. Between the star power and awesome intellect of the speakers on stage and the discrimination of the audience, it was impossible for questioners not to fail in their performance of their intellectuality.

One had the distinct sense that the disapproving murmurs of the audience expressed not so much disagreement with any of the questioners as a deeper disquiet: that their enjoyment of the great minds on stage had been tainted. Despite the numerous rousing calls for militancy from the speakers, there was a sense that we were there to be spectators of, rather than agents of, our own intellectual emancipation. We were beaten down by Žižek's macho bravura, Bosteel's lethal wit, and Badiou's belabored teachings. Badiou's pedagogical style in particular typified what Rancière criticized, in his presentation, as intellectually stultifying "explication": by playing the role of the Promethean master who imparts knowledge to the student rather than facilitating the student to teach herself, Badiou performatively constituted his audience as intellectual inferiors who could only emancipate their minds by "maturing" into his place as master. Žižek perfectly captured the nature of this relationship in a remark meant as praise: "Alain is our Parmenides; he is the Father."

+ + +

There were two much more concrete forms of exclusion structuring the conference that deserve further comment. First was the cost of admission: £45 for students and £100 for the general public. The School of Africana Studies (SAOS) Student Union responded to the glaring incongruity between the subject matter of the conference and its high price of admission by passing a resolution entitled "No to the Commodification of Communism" and inviting the speakers at the communism conference to speak at SAOS for free. There was talk of a storming the Birkbeck stage, which, given the recent rash of student occupations at several universities and BBC headquarters in response to the war in Gaza, was no idle threat. But the students' outrage was quelled nearly as quickly as it flared up: Birkbeck apologized, set up a free simulcast room, and offered the SAOS students a brief spot on the program just before Saturday lunch break to launch an open-source books campaign. The students' actions were inspiring, but their victory pyrrhic. A Birkbeck staff person patronizingly announced the students' addition to the program, telling the members of the audience that "it would be very good of you for as many of you as possible to stay for the presentation." Naturally, over half the audience left immediately, and the rest awkwardly stood through the presentation, coats in hand, waiting to be released.

The second exclusion, which unlike the former did elicit some expressions of outrage from the audience, had to do with the homogeneity of the speaker's list. All of the speakers were white European men, with the exceptions of Hardt (white and male but American) and poetry scholar Judith Balso (white and European but female). No history other than that of the French Revolution and Marxist communism was looked to for inspiration in testing "the communist hypothesis." Other variants were represented only by proxy: Hardt made the sole homage to queer theory and feminism; Žižek gave a Eurocentric, Hegelian reading of the Haitian Revolution; Hallward perfunctorily cited Fanon and South African shackdwellers; Italian sociologist Alessandro Russo made general remarks about the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Of all the speakers, only Rancière, in a breathtaking monologue that received tremendous applause, criticized the homogeneity of the conference. The only real engagement with non-European experiences with communism was Bosteels' excellent discussion of the writings of Bolivian vice-president Álvaro Garcia Línera.

The genius of the conference, however, was the way its very premise inoculated it from at least the most superficial, identity-politics-oriented criticisms of the homogeneity of the speakers. The decision not to bother with the history of "actually existing communism" freed the conference of the need to have a diversity of speakers that could broadly represent the various experiments in communist theory and practice outside of Europe. A radical defense of the self-sufficiency and principled universality of philosophy served as a bulwark against multiculturalist-historicist blackmail. However, that this should still produce straight, white, bourgeois males is lamentable, for in addition to being hypocritical, it gives multiculturalists ammunition against an idea of universal human equality that really does deserve to be reconsidered.

+ + +

Despite its austerely philosophical agenda, the conference was haunted by the notion, best articulated by sociologist Alberto Toscano, that "the Idea of communism cannot be separated from the problem, if not the program, of its realization." Inevitably, the panelists could not resist debating the Idea of communism in relation to more practical questions of the state and political economy, but ultimately little was said about these topics that had not already been rehearsed in the philosophers' writings about one another. Such questions were not the real focus. The real, implicit political question around which the entire conference revolved, yet which was never posed as such, was the obvious one: Why "communism?"

This conference was essentially the first step of a small but powerful—or at least respected—intellectual vanguard to reclaim "communism," to purify it, so that in time the word could only "legitimately" bring to mind the Jacobean-Marxist lineage of radicalism. This is not a new tactic: Rancière and Badiou have previously tried, in their own ways, to seize the signifier "politics" and narrow its semantic scope such that "politics" as such becomes synonymous with radical politics. But what is the political efficacy of trying to resurrect "communism," perhaps (after fascism) the most irretrievably corrupted in the political lexicon, as the name by which radical thought and egalitarian struggle takes place today?

Perhaps the corruption is itself part of its inexorable power, the most convincing illustration of which was a single declaration by Žižek that weeks later still strikes me as the most lucid utterance of the entire conference: "The future will be socialist or communist." The counter-intuitive juxtaposition of socialism and communism as antagonistic tendencies in this statement makes devastatingly clear the direction the world is headed and the choices we have to make. We must choose between either a world in which governance is reduced the depoliticized, technocratic management of productive forces at the service of a heavily regulated but naturalized global market, or a world of radical equality which opposes any form of economic or political exclusion. We must give up on the compromise of socialism, for, as the current global financial crisis and the response of governments to it demonstrates, socialism is not the prelude to communism but the future of hypercapitalism.

Still, it seems like a safer bet to have confidence, as Russo put it, "that political intellectuality will invent new names for radical egalitarian desire" than to try philosophize "communism" back into existence. Philosophy can't complete politics, but it can reinvigorate and expand politics, and with this in mind Žižek's "call to thought" is salutary. For this lesson and for the essential gesture of proposing a single banner under which all those committed to struggling for universal human equality can unite, the Birkbeck conference, for all its sins, represents a step in the right direction.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Abridged "Branded to Kill"

Premiered at the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre Incubator, 28 Feb, 2009
Adapted by Patrick Harrison from Seijun Suzuki's 1967 film "Branded to Kill"
Directed by Patrick Harrison and Nancy Kwon

Live music by Dave Harrington
Patrick Harrison as HANADA
Jessie Hopkins as MISAKO
Ryan Ruby as NO1
Olivia Olsen as MAMI
Ian Picco as GOON 2
Jamie Pittman as GOON 4
Dan Rogers as GOON 5
Live music by Dave Harrington


Tokyo, 1966.
Two chairs are pre-set center stage, back to back, facing stage right and left.
All performers will wear 'epicanthic fold' eye makeup and speak with a thick Japanese accent.

OPENING CREDITS on TV. Live music continues once the TV segment ends.

VOICE OVER: You’ll find a car at Shinagawa. You’ll find the key behind the bumper.

HANADA enters. He wears sunglasses and a suit.

VO: You’re to escort this man from Nagano to Sagami Beach for five million yen. He’s a Big Shot of a certain bijiness. It’s not a bad job.

HANADA: If nothing happens.

VO: You’re Number Three Killer. We rely on your skill. Do you want to try?

NO1 enters and sits stage right (after brushing off the chair). He is dressed more or less identically to HANADA, but his entire bearing is more dignified.

HANADA: Boil rice.

MAMI enters with a ricemaker full of steaming rice.

MAMI: He wants rice.

MAMI gives the ricemaker to HANADA, who cradles it in his lap and luxuriates in the smell. MAMI She crosses up to the audience and flirts obscenely with the audience.

NO1: Who is the woman?

HANADA: My wife.

MAMI: He has a peculiar quirk. I hate it. He likes the smell of boiling rice better than anything else.

HANADA: I can’t help smelling this scent.

MAMI: Please don’t. My husband is a dreadful man.

NO1: “Drink and women kill a killer.”

MAMI holds her nose with one hand, and takes the rice cooker with the other but HANADA refuses to relinquish it.

MAMI: Stop it! You’re abnormal!

He releases the rice, and takes hold of MAMI, smelling her hungrily. She likes it for a moment, but then storms off.

MAMI: You’re only nice to me in bed!

HANADA: Strong men are coming.

GOONS labeled “2”, “4”, and “5” appear.

HANADA: Hold on.

The sounds of a car screeching to a halt. HANADA and NO1 spill out of the chairs downstage. FIGHT SCENE: fencing, grappling, rolling done in “theatrical split screen”. GOON 2 crawls towards HANADA, yelling “HANADA!!!!” and HANADA shoots him. HANADA smiles and turns to face NO.1, the goons suddenly rise to shoot HANADA, but NO 1 pulls out his gun. The GOONS collectively gasp upon recognizing NO. 1.

GOONS: Numba…

Sound of three gunshots as No.1 shoots them in the head. The goons point to the bullet holes on their heads and collapse, dead. HANADA points at his head, indicating the head shots.

HANADA: What’s your rank?

NO1 inhales as though to answer, then doesn’t. NO1 and GOONS exit. HANADA looks after him baffled, then turns towards the audience.

HANADA: What’s your rank?

8mm projector of MISAKO. MISAKO enters. All of her dialogue is voice over.

HANADA: Are you married?

MISAKO: I hate men.

HANADA: Then you have no hope.

MISAKO: My hope is to die.

HANADA: Boil rice.

MISAKO: Kill a foreigner.

HANADA: What do you mean?

MISAKO: I rented a room you can sight in on him from. He usually takes a woman’s left arm. You’ll see us walking together down the boulevard.

HANADA: Rice! I’m talking about hot boiled rice!

MISAKO: You’ll have three seconds.

HANADA: It’s a devil’s job.

MISAKO: I heard you were a devil.

HANADA: I refuse.

MISAKO: No, you can’t. You heard the plan.

HANADA: Who sent you? Damn you! Don’t despise me! I can kill you with one shot.

MISAKO: You won’t, until you sleep with me.

HANADA: Where is the rice?! Do you have some rice?! If you don’t, buy some. You can buy I at a rice dealer’s. Go and buy some rice for me.

MISAKO: Three seconds. I’ll step aside a little. For a split second you’ll be able to see his chest.

HANADA: I’ll kill you. That’s what you’ve hoped for.

HANADA tackles her, as though to make love to her, but is shocked that she falls to the ground without putting up a struggle.

HANADA: Whose behind you?

MISAKO raises her legs spread wide into the air.

MISAKO: I am Misako, your customer, for one million yen.

HANADA dives in between her legs and emerges, his hands fully of butterflies, which he lets fall to the ground.

HANADA: You may be hit.

She arches opens her mouth. It is full of rice. HANADA smells the rice.

The FOREIGNER (GOON 5) picks MISAKO off the ground. (The GOONS are referred to by number hereafter, but they no longer wear their numbers on their costume). “Flying” by The Beatles (Magical Mystery Tour) plays. GOON 5 and MISAKO slowly cross downstage, left to right. HANADA poses to shoot. GOON 2 manipulates the butterfly puppet, which lands on the gun and then on HANADA’s face just as he shoots (SOUND OF GUNSHOT), the BULLET PUPPET comes out, dances for a while, and, as the song is ending, kills the GOON 5. MISAKO gasps and throws her head band to HANADA. The FOREIGNER kidnaps MISAKO. GOONS and MISAKO exit.

HANADA: Misako!

8mm of MISAKO being tortured, with freaky other footage.
SOUND OF phone ringing. GOON 5 enters with a telephone. HANADA picks it up.

NO1: She’s still alive.

Live music resumes.

HANADA: Who are you?

NO1: I have questions to ask you. Who is No. 5 Killer? You don’t know? You shot him. Then who is No. 4? Him too. No. 3 is you. Who is No. 2?

HANADA: I am No. 2!

NO1: That’s right. Now you are. Who is phantom No. 1? Who is No 1?


NO1: We are to kill or be killed. You can’t be permitted to live. But first, are you going to take revenge for the woman you love?


GOON 5 begins to blow up a balloon.

NO1: I owe you for what you did for me. I repay my debt by warning you that I’ll kill you. You will take revenge for the girl you love. I’ll let you see her if you like. Then you’ll die.


NO 1: This is the way No. 1 works. Can you beat me? I’ll be waiting for you at Etsuraku-en Gymnasium. If you don’t come you’re a coward.

GOON 5 hands the balloon to HANADA, who ties it.

HANADA: Why should I not become Number One? I will become Number One.

Peppy jazz plays as HANADA plays with the balloon. The balloon pops.
SOUND: The boxing ring-bell rings. HANADA has a shoot out with No. 1 on TV; During the shoot out, HANADA tries to escape, but GOONS 2 and 3 block him in with boxing ring ropes that move to simulate three sides of a boxing ring (THREE GUNSHOT/RICOCHET SOUNDS as HANADA attempts to escape through each side). HANADA gets fed up and turns the TV off.

HANADA: He is a coward. He is a coward!

HANADA puts on MISAKO’s headband.

HANADA: Who is Number One? Who is Numba—

NO1’s arm sticks out of backstage door, and shoots HANADA (SOUND OF GUNSHOT). who collapses. LIVE MUSIC SUDDENLY CUTS OFF MUSIC. Believing he has killed HANADA with his signature forehead-shot, NO1 comes out from hiding to briefly gloat over the body and leave. Just as he turns to leave HANADA shoots him (GUNSHOT). HANADA gloats, showing the broken headband which prevented him from getting shot to the audience and NO1’s corpse.

HANADA: I am Number One! I am Number One! (etc).

8mm projection of No1 shoots HANADA (SOUND: gunshot), who is actually hit. HANADA turns around just in time to see the image of No1 disappear. MISAKO enters from backstage right door, limping, her arm and head bandaged.

MISAKO: It’s me!

HANADA, by reflex, immediately shoots MISAKO, (SOUND: gunshot) who falls over dead.

HANADA: I am Number One.

He dies.

Ending credit music plays over 8MM of NO1 silently laughing.


Friday, February 27, 2009


Vast strategic manoeuvre--perfect co-ordination--utter rout--half a million prisoners--complete demoralization--control of the whole of Africa--bring the war within measurable distance of its end--victory--greatest victory in human history--victory, victory, victory!

Under the table my feet make convulsive movements. I do not stir from my seat, but in my mind I am running, swiftly running, I am with the crowds outside, cheering myself deaf. I look up again at the portrait of Barack Obama. The colossus that bestrode the world! Barack, against which the hordes of Asia dashed themselves in vain! Ten minutes ago--yes, only ten minutes--there had still been equivocation in my heart as I wondered whether the news from the front would be of victory or defeat. Ah, it was more than a Eurasian army that had perished! Much had changed in me since that first day in the Ministry of Love, but the final, indispensable, healing change had never happened, until this moment.

The voice from the television was still pouring forth its tale of prisoners and booty and slaughter, but the shouting outside had died down a little. The waiters were turning back to their work. One of them approached with the gin bottle. Sitting in a blissful dream, I pay no attention as my glass is filled up. I am not running or cheering any longer. I am back in the Social Services. Everything is forgiven. Our souls are white as snow. I confess to you confessing everything, implicating everybody. I walk down the white-tiled corridor, with the feeling of walking in sunlight, and an armed guard at my back. The long-hoped-for bullet is entering my brain.

Gaze up at his enormous face. Four years it has taken us to learn what kind of smile is hidden beneath that dark skin. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of my nose. But it is all right, everything is all right, the struggle is finished. I have won the victory over myself. I love Barack Obama.

Eulogy # 1 (an improvization by Andrew Starner)

Hello. You all know who I am:
I am Andrew Starner.
King Minos is dead.
King Minos is dead.
King Minos is dead,
he is dead--
go on, say it with me.
Oh, you can say it now,
without fear:
King Minos is dead
and King Minos was a tyrant.
He was a tyrant,
and he was a fool
and he was a cuckold.
He was a fool who lost his wife, who lost his daughter
and lost his son, the beast, the Minotaur.
For years he has brought our island to the brink of despair.
King Minos is dead and he has left no heir.
I ask you:
who among you has the will,
the authority
and the sexual fertility
to take his throne?

Eulogy #0 (an improvization by Patrick Harrison)

I’ll be brief since there aren’t many people here.
He wasn’t very well liked.
He was different than everyone else.
He didn’t have a name.
The only words ever spoken to him were
the screams of his victims
and of his mother when he was born.
I’ll say one thing for him, though:
he died doing his job.
It wasn’t a good job.
He hurt a lot of people doing it.
But he did it for his country,
and nobody thanked him.
Thanks, pal,
our friend, the Minotaur.

Bucket Brigade #1

Barak Obama used the word
‘economy’ or ‘economic’
thirty one times in his address to the nation,
proof that the white of his eyes
are, indeed, as luminous
as our own.

Bucket Brigade #0

He likes granola, pita chips, and guacamole,
dressed in his shirt sleeves
‘No suitcoats in my oval office.’
Fifteen people killed today
by drone attacks in Pakistan
love Barak Obama.

"31 Flavors"

So many pleasures from which to choose:
I don’t know, can any
One really be the best?
Barack Obama.

Thursday, January 01, 2009


1) Both Hamas and the ruling government in Israel are right wing religious jerks, and like all right wingers they have no interest in ending hostilities, but only in creating new ones, sustaining old ones, and in building mythologies that dehistoricize recent political conflicts and portray them as eternal, metaphysical conflicts between two opposing faiths/races.

a) Israeli right wingers do not want peace, they want permanent occupation within acceptable margins of civilian loss. "Acceptable" civilian losses are a necessary evil because the right wing depends on terrorism to stay in power. The right wingers would be nothing without their image as the protectors of not just Israeli citizens, but the Jewish people and religion worldwide. As long as there are still civilian deaths, people have something to fear and look to the right for protection.

b) Precisely because the Israeli right wing WANTS permanent conflict and civilian losses, Hamas' strategy of violent resistance plays directly into Israel's hands. Hamas wages uban guerilla war, suicide bombings, and rocket strikes to creat a spectacle of resistance that will inspire Palestinians to support them, but that's all it is: spectacle. Hamas KNOWS that Israel will overrreact to violence, but it persists in its utterly futile violent resistance because it will profit when Israel's bloody overreaction stirs up more hate and desire to support Hamas. Hamas wants to be the kings of shit town, and their strategy of violence has nothing to do with actually getting the Palestinian people autonomy and peace, but everything to do with maintaining their shitty thrown. If Hamas was authentically committed to freeing Palestinian people, they would follow a strategy of non-violence.

2) The American media are a bunch of cads for portraying this conflict as a matter of Hamas "breaking" the ceasefire and ignoring the fact that rocket attacks resumed because the ceasefire expired. The American media has underreportec civilian deaths, and blithely reproduces the Israel Defense Force's propaganda-rhetoric of "surgical strikes". There is nothing "surgical" or "precise" about raining tons of fire from the sky into a city slum.

3) Before Israel's airstrikes, Hamas' rocket attacks since the end of the ceasefire had only killed 1 Israeli citizen. As of today over 400 Palestinians and a dozen or less Israelis are dead. If both Hamas and the Israeli right are assholes in principle, it's quite clear that Israel's actions here are monstrous and Israel must immediately quit this horrific violence.

4) It is popular to compare the occupation of Palestine to South African apartheid, and the failure of this analogy is very instructive in the present moment. Hamas' self-serving committment to violence could not stand in more contrast to the ANC, which made a point of bombing infrastructure and avoiding human casualties whenever possible, and in the instances in which their actions WERE aimed to kill, focusing exclusively on South African police. The apartheid regime is famous for the massacres in Sharpeville and Soweto, but never used airstrikes against Bantustans or committed atrocities in which the dead numbered as many as in the current conflict.

5) In a perfect world we would all share material resources equally, all governments would be secular, and racial and religious differences would not be cause for political division. There would be a single, secular, socialist Palestine in which all people were full citizens. Short of that, the only solution is this: non-violence on both sides, respect for Palestinian self-rule, and the establishment of genuine two-state solution.

ADDENDUM: Jan 3 2008

6) A friend of mine asked if I thought things were really so simple, that the masses of Israelis and Palestinians were being cruelly reigned over by a powerful elite whose interests were totally different from that of the people they ruled. In essence, I was accused of over simplifying, turning the result of a multiplicity of social forces acting on a variety of scales with the simple conspiracy of an elite. So the proper rejoinder is this: that yes, many "normal", "everyday" Israeli's and Palestinians--those outside the "political elite"--actively support the paths that Hamas and the Israeli right are carving out, whether actively--extremists like the Israeli settlers or rocket-firing Hamas "activists"--or just indirectly by doing what they need to to just get along within existing power structures.

8) That also said, the depiction of Hamas in the Western media as merely a "militant group"--or worse, and even more manipulatively, as a "terrorist group"--is a gross distortion, and Israel's boasting that they have confined casualties to Hamas militants only is bullshit. Hamas is the police force in Gaza, and a major provider of education, medecine, and other social services in Gaza. Not all members of Hamas share its antisemitic tenencies or even its substantive political ideology; a lot of people are just looking for jobs and roles in their communities.

7) Now that Israel has put boots on the ground in Israel, I have to retract my earlier statement about non-violence. The Palestinians have to ditch violence in the long term if they want to accomplish anything, but with Israel now crossing over into Gaza territory itself, the Palestinians have the right to defend their territory from invasion.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Workers' Comp at Brown

Library Shelvers Deserve Better Treatment

The Herald should be applauded for its coverage of the difficulty Brown’s under-appreciated library shelvers have had getting adequate compensation for their work-related injuries (“Library shelvers suffer from repetitive stress injuries, Oct. 24”). Having worked part time this past summer as a student shelving assistant, I can testify to the strenuousness of the job and the professionalism of the library shelvers.

Shelving books may seem like an easy job, but hours and hours of repeating the same simple movements can create real wear on the body, and the monotony of the work can leave you feeling mentally fried. If the soles of your shoes are wearing thin (as mine were), or if you’re not careful about how your move your body, you end up sore at the end of just a single day of work. All the little exceptions to the rules—say, every once and a while you forget to take a break, or you bend down to shelf a book instead of squatting down—begin to add up. Though I am a healthy young person, I found myself experiencing mild foot and lower back pain after half a summer of 20 to 30 hours weeks at the job. I can only imagine the toll that decades of full-time shelving work must take on a body twice as old as mine.

It must be added to the Herald’s coverage of the shelving staff’s injuries that the library shelvers are not just suffering bodies, but dynamic individuals who manage to stay upbeat despite their less than ideal working conditions. The shelving staff is a vibrant and friendly bunch who made me, a temporary worker, feel at home even in the windowless basement of the Rock. Their personalities make an otherwise dreary and monotonous job enjoyable at a human level. They are also very professional. They taught me how to do my job and gave me tasks without ever being bossy, unctuous, or otherwise compromising the comfortable workplace rapport. Most importantly, they did not just look after the quality of my work, but also after my physical welfare, making sure that I knew how to shelve books without hurting myself and that I took adequate breaks.

After all the concern that the library shelvers showed me, I cannot believe that the reason library shelvers are incurring injuries is that they are not applying the safety techniques taught in training workshops, as head of Preservation Eric Shoaf suggested to the Herald. Shoaf’s remarks, as well as those of Director of Environmental Health and Safety Stephen Morin, whom the Herald paraphrased as saying that that “shelving is not an area that jumps out as having a high occurrence of injuries”, seem to intentionally downplay the health risks of being a long-term library shelver. The University’s position seems to be that the shelvers’ injuries are not inevitable results of their job for which the University must take responsibility, but rather are the shelvers’ own faults. This attitude is symptomatic of a broader devaluing of physical labor in today’s economy, a trend that is all the more pronounced at institutions of higher learning, which valorize and reward the intellectual and clerical labor over the physical labor.

The truth is this: that repetitive physical labor, even labor as seemingly low-intensity as shelving books, breaks the body down, and that the people who make their living through such work must be fully compensated for the physical deterioration they will inevitably incur as part of their job. To say that there are health “risks” associated with a career as a library shelver is misleading. It is almost certain that doing shelving for years will result, if not in a dramatic physical injury, then generally accelerated physical strain. Shelving may not be as immediately dangerous as other forms of manual labor, and shelving-related injuries may be less dramatic than life-threatening construction accidents, but the certainty of long-term physical damage is no less real.

Brown can make changes both big and small to treat its shelvers more fairly. Starting small, the library should stop putting books on the bottom shelf of the stacks in the library, which are the most straining on shelvers’ backs and knees to reach. This has already been done in some sections of the library, and should continue to be implemented throughout the library as over-stocked stacks are reorganized. The library should also increase pay for student shelving assistants to better reflect the physically demanding nature of their work relative to other student jobs. Student shelvers currently make a quarter less per hour than students working in the book bindery, for example. Ultimately, however, Brown has to be more responsive to the needs of its employees and the judgments of employees’ doctors pertaining to work-related injuries. It is disgraceful that Brown employees should have to resort to lawsuits to claim fair compensation for their hard work. The Herald’s must continue its critical coverage of the University’s labor practices. Finally, Brown students and alum should support University workers’ efforts for fair compensation and safe labor practices. After all, student tuition and alumni donations contribute to the salaries of the Universities physical workers. If we alumni and students are not a part of the solution, then we are part of the problem.

Former Herald Opinions Editor Patrick Harrison ’08 misses the shelf life.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Zizek and Badiou on the Financial Crisis

Zizek steals my moves on the financial crisis (or rather finally gets around to applying the moves which I learned from him to the latest current event).

The good people at Infinite Thought have translated Badiou's article in Le Monde on the financial crisis.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Now is the Time for Politics

The current financial crisis is not a natural disaster or an act of God. It is a result of the way that we organize our societies, economically and politically. It is a result of the "hands off" attitude of our government that has allowed financial institutions to speculate on bad investments on credit. Therefore we must reject President Bush's call to "rise above politics". It is precisely politics that we need right now! This crisis is not a scientific problem; it will not be resolved by technicians. It is a problem of inequality and of our government protecting big business instead of protecting working people. The resolution of this crisis will be a matter of our elected officials taking sides with either the working people or with the financial elite, depending on the terms of regulation and relief for homeowners that are ultimately decided upon.

I'm very interested in the ideological function of the figure of the Wall Street executive in this. Both Obama and McCain have emphasized that they don't want irresponsible Wall Street executives to be rewarded with large severance packages for this. This of course is terrible hypocrisy on McCain's part: he wants to limit CEO packages to $400,000! I guess for a guy with over a dozen houses and eight cars, $400,000 is just chump change. Anyways, emphasis on punishing Wall Street executives (or not) hides the fact that this crisis is a systemic failure, and not merely the fault of a few individuals. It is 'objective' violence, not 'subjective' violence, as Balibar and Zizek would put it. The issue is not whether a few individuals will be unfairly rewarded with large severance packages, but whether our government will continue to be a government at the services of the financial elite and the bourgeoisie or if it will be a government of working people.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Against Voting

Reproduced below is an article I wrote for the Brown Daily Herald about the progressive political efficacy of protesting elections in America. A friend of mine whose a grad student at Cornell tells me the article was re-printed in the Cornell Daily Sun in a weekly supplement that re-prints articles from the newspapers at other Ivy League schools.

Now I have my problems with liberal democracy as an institution, but in lieu of proposing a total revolution that would rewrite the American Constitution (I'm in favor of it, yes! But this goal seems more like the horizon of possibility of political action than a tactical, concrete goal at the moment) I think we need to take a hard look at the actual mechanisms that run our so-called democracy. We must have a massive reform of our voting system that (1) the abolition of the electoral college and direct popular election of the presidency, (2) the end of all 'superdelegate' or privileged party-member votes in the two national parties, and (3) the introduction of a multi-round run-off system that will allow for the emergence of real national alternatives to the two national parties.

I feel like the ending of this article is something of a cop out. Basically, I'm trying to reconcile with the fact that the fact that voting gives consent to an undemocratic system of government, and that the election of John McCain would mean the indefinite extension of the Iraq War. Frankly, I think that the end of the Iraq War is more pressing, and so perhaps it is a tactical compromise (and a question of priorities) to vote for a candidate who will end the war. Is this the best action though?


There is a lot of hype about the record turnout of voters for the presidential primaries this year, but no one is talking about how low voter turnout actually is. In Iowa, only about 15 percent of the eligible population caucused. In the past 35 years, voter turnout for national elections has been abysmal. In the past seven presidential elections, only 50 to 55 percent of the eligible population voted. If only half the population is voting, and if elections are a narrow contest between two opposing camps, as they inevitably are in a two-party system, then only a quarter of the population is effectively running the show. Sound like democracy to you?

Some will say that low voter turnout is the fault of a lazy, apathetic electorate. Liberal progressives will respond that the real issue is to find out why voters are apathetic, and blame apathy on poverty and government unresponsiveness to public needs. This position conceives of "apathetic" voters as purely passive, ignorant people who just need to be educated on how easy voting is, and assumes that no systemic change in our form of government is needed to revitalize democracy. For liberals, not voting is equivalent to not acting, and political action is synonymous with voting. Against this, I want to propose that the only truly political, democratic action one can take today with regard to elections is to refuse to legitimate a corrupt and undemocratic system by not participating in it and actively boycotting and protesting elections.

This is not to say that voting can never work. If elections were actually fair, then we would have an obligation to vote. But the last two elections have not met that standard. Given that people of color are still disenfranchised en masse and the will of the people can be overridden by the Electoral College, we have an obligation not to vote and to actively demand electoral reform at a Constitutional and local level. The Electoral College, which has four times in history overridden the popular vote, must be replaced by a direct popular vote. Early voting, which allows people to vote over a period of a month before elections, should be a universal practice for all elections to make voting easier for working people - currently, early voting exists in only 35 states. Finally, at the local level, we must work to make sure that early voting locations are open on weekends and are accessible to all citizens.

The most important voting reform for more democratic politics, beyond fair elections, is replacing our winner-takes-all elections with a multi-round run-off system. Every four years, American voters face the same dilemma due to the winner-takes-all system: "I want to vote for candidate X, but those stupid masses and the Electoral College make X unelectable." What we need to realize is that electability is not a real, objective quality that a candidate possesses, but a belief about a candidate that a voter projects onto her imaginary concept of the "stupid masses."

My wager is that neither are the "masses" stupid, nor is the concept of "the masses" as a coherent, homogenous, pre-given consensus anything but a pure, ideological fiction produced by politicians as "middle America" and by the media with its ceaseless opinion polls. Buying into the myth of "electability" allows you to publicly betray your beliefs (you don't vote for candidate X), fall in line with the ruling ideology and still be able to cynically maintain your sense of private purity ("My heart was in the right place!"). Winner-takes-all elections result in everyone practicing a kind of "second choice" politics that is massively repressive to any kind of original political thought. A multi-round run-off system, in which candidates are eliminated through a succession of rounds of voting until one obtains a majority, would do much to end the spell of "electability."

It would encourage originality by allowing candidates and voters to bring their interests to the table with less reservation during the initial stages. It would also result in more meaningful political compromises by forcing candidates and voters to work through issues together, negotiate compromises and form coalitions at each stage of voting, as opposed to candidates' policies and voters' interests always being compromised from the get-go in our current system.

This exegesis on "electability" demonstrates that it is not people who abstain from voting who are apathetic, but people who do vote when they know full well that our electoral system is corrupt and undemocratic who are truly apathetic, passive and apolitical. To the objection that voting is the only way to hold politicians accountable, I say that politicians are held more accountable if we refuse to play into the electoral charade that they hold over our heads to "legitimate" their rule. Some object that there will still be a president. If by "president" they mean a leader who governs by the democratic consent of the people, then they are wrong. Neither will there be one in 2009, nor is there one now.

However, whether we can afford not to do everything possible to end the imperialist war in Iraq is a very different question from whether we can afford to live a little while longer under this sham democracy. The real "choice between the lesser of two evils" today is not the choice between Clinton and Obama, or between Democrats and Republicans. It is the choice between voting and not ending the war.

Patrick Harrison '08 voted early for Obama in the Tennessee primary.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

stream of consciousness

i hade to write a one page stream of consciousness theatre piece as a bullshit assignment for a theatre history class. this is what you come up with when writing at 6am with agamben, international politics, and sex nazis stirring around in your mind all week

Milhaud Rimbaud Artaud fo’ sho(w)!
Arborescent feasant’s
Heather, madam of leisure, black shirt boots of pleasure were by the
Riots in France! Avant-en-garde! Can you free Tibet with without freeing Vichy first?
[rabbits set loose run across the stage and are shot
as Jean Renoir films, his father and Heidegger have tea while discussing
science, with due dis
stain on Hannah Arendt’s blouse]
Sex is cruel but not as cruel as labour, and labour not as cruel as out of work with nothing to do but set cars aflame

-- Did you hear there’s ash raining from the sky in Guantanamo?
-- Yes, it made it all the way to Florida but luckily we sent it back.
-- Man I sure do get lost surfing all this net!
-- Yes then you should try the inner city!
Where’s that octophonic tonic with Harry Connick, now there’s a C major kind of guy, I heard his people invented jazz! If jazz was ever the case, that is.

-- La creation du monde! Zeitgest! Gesundheit! If Europeans could talk what would they sound like?
-- Better not to ask, I prefer suburbaltern photochat myself.

[Kenny G records saxophone of “Louis Armstrong’s” What a Wonderful World,
volcanoes explode and men weep to feel so moved for the first time in their life
since removed out of the original packaging, sure they’re not worth anything anymore, but all the fun they had could never be made up for by being collectors items, plus they’re still almost in mint condition, except the Boba Fett which my dog chewed up, the head is a little damaged and my dog threw up inside, cleaning it up was gross but I had my Salvadoran nanny do it]

-- Gaea?
-- Black forest?
She puts the age in savage and the V in Na-zi
How did we ever get back from camp?

-- Please don’t proo freed my desire I just want to fornicate, just please don’t make me touch it touch It that Thing at the outside of town, if town indeed has an outside anymore.
-- Everyone please draw straws to see who has to go find out.
-- How long will it take?
-- Who knows no one’s ever seen it, but I hear the train is not too crowded. STANDING ROOM IN THE AIX-ELLES!
-- How are we going to pay for this?


Tuesday, April 08, 2008

there is no "like us" because "us" is everyone

Yes, it would be worthwhile to study clinically, in detail, the steps taken by Hitler and Hitlerism and to reveal to the very distinguished, very humanistic, very Christian bourgeois of the twentieth century that without his being aware of it, he has a Hitler inside him, that Hitler which inhabits him, that Hitler is his demon, that if he rails against him, he is being inconsistent and that, at bottom, what he cannot forgive Hitler for is not the crime in itself, the crime against man, it is not the humiliation of man as such, it is the crime against the white man, the humiliation of the white man, and the fact that he applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the “coolies” of India, and the “niggers” of Africa.
-- Aime Cesaire, Discourse on Colonialism

We should be more struck than we usually are by a remark that often recurs in articles and commentaries devoted to the war in the former Yugoslavia: it is pointed out--with a kind of subjective excitement, an ornamental pathos--that these atrocities are taking place 'only two hours by plane from Paris'. the authors of these texts invoke, naturally, all the 'rights of man', ethics, humanitarian intervention, the fact that Evil (thought to have been exorcized by the collapse of totalitarianisms') is making a terrible comeback. But then the observation seems ludicrous: if it is a matter of ethical principles, of the victimary essence of Man, of the fact that 'rights are universal and imprescriptible', why should we care about the length of the flight? Is the 'recognition of the other' all the more intense if this other is in some sense almost within my reach?
-- Alain Badiou, Ethics

Funny that when I saw the home invasion sequence I thought the film was trying to make a point about the occupation of Iraq; Agamben is quite right that Abu Ghraib is a camp. Frankly, I am not sure what point this TV spot is trying to get across: is it about Iraq? the restriction of civil liberties since 9/11? Holocaust denial?

The idiocy of the commercial is not just the obvious point that it implies that the "us" to whom the Holocaust happened is only "middle class suburban white people." The real problem is the "like us." In order for there to be a "like us" then there must be those who are not "like us" against whom it is permissible to commit systematic, biopolitical violence. This is Cesaire's point on the Holocaust: that the moral outrage Euro-Americans express (with a certain self-punishing pleasure) about the Holocaust, elevating it to the level of an unthinkable metaphysical catastrophe--didn't Adorno say there could be no poetry after Auschwitz"--brings out, in contrast, the silent complicity with colonialism. Cesaire seems to anticipate Foucault on biopolitics here in a wonderful way. It is interesting that European thinkers are only now getting around to criticizing the elevation of the Holocaust into an unthinkable, metaphysical Evil--although even Agamben, while showing the Holocaust only to be part of a grander biopolitics, still chalks it up to metaphysics--when you had Cesaire writing this in 1953.

Which leads to Alain Badiou and the second point. That rejecting the "like us" doesn't mean reviving an ethics based on the Other-to-be-respected. Badiou and others have argued persuasively that there can be no ethics of otherness, since what respect for otherness does not respect is precisely the other that doesn't respect otherness. Essentially the ethics of the other it is the ethics of liberal democracy, and we can see this repeated throughout liberal assumptions on tolerance--what tolerance doesn't tolerate is the intolerant, a void in tolerance which must be assigned a specific substantive content and thus undoes tolerance--and democracy, conceived of as a form of rule--everyone can participate in democracy except people who are against it. Badiou's passage below speaks to this fact that the other in truth will only be tolerated insofar as the other is same; that the suffering of the Other is only relevant insofar as the other is "like us." Furthermore--and I think this is critical--a professor of mine has argued that to call another an Other is really a one-way exercise of power.

That there is no "like us," then, can only mean that "us" should be everyone. Our politics must strive toward One world, a world of reciprocal gazes that recognizes not Otherness but Sameness in one-another, a world of equality-in-belonging and equality-in-freedom.

sex nazi

this just in from the New York Times, I don't even know where to begin, it is tempting to invent some bullshit about a homosexual oedipal complex at play--maybe he's acting out the primal scene?--but i don't know enough about psychoanalysis (also, didn't Adorno say homosexuals were more likely to be fascists? what the hell was that about?)

Possible Nazi Theme of Grand Prix Boss's Orgy Draws Calls to Quit

LONDON — Few scandals in recent years have provoked as much anger and dismay across Europe as the saga of Max Mosley, the overseer of grand prix motor racing who made tabloid news last weekend in a front-page exposé and accompanying Web video showing him in a sadomasochistic orgy with five supposed prostitutes in a London sex “dungeon.” [...]

Family history has added to the notoriety: Mr. Mosley, 67, is the younger son of Britain’s 1930s fascist leader, Sir Oswald Mosley, and the society beauty Diana Mitford, whose secret wedding in Berlin in October 1936 was held at the home of the Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels and included Hitler as a guest of honor.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Rambo Ends the Burmese Civil War

this is the long version of a review of stallone's latest "rambo" film that i wrote for the post- and had to be published in a much more abridged version

Rambo Ends the Burmese Civil War
The fourth installment of the series is the smartest stupid movie ever

For a while, American film studios had stumbled into a period of producing thoughtful and entertaining thrillers about international politics like “Syriana,” “The Constant Gardener,” and “Children of Men.” Those precious years has slipped behind us, our theatres now clogged with such pretentious fair as “Lions and Lambs,” “The Kite Runner,” and “Redacted.” In this dark time, one film stands alone as a beacon of light: “Rambo,” the fourth installment of the infamous Sylvester Stallone films that began with 1982’s “First Blood.” “Rambo” continues the series’ legacy of faux-political action films whose exploitative violence problematizes their good intentions. In “First Blood,” Rambo comes home from the Vietnam War haunted by post-traumatic stress disorder and unable to resume a normal civilian life. When some redneck cops try to start trouble with him, a mini war breaks out between a man who destroyed his humanity for his country and his unappreciative fellow Americans. Naturally, this thoughtful message gets buried deep beneath a pile of bodies.

This time around, Rambo has “gone native,” living in solitude in Thailand when he is approached by Christian missionaries who want to hire Rambo to ferry them up river to Burma where they deliver medicine and Bibles to the Karen people, who, as everyone on this campus knows, have been brutally oppressed by the Burmese government for nearly 60 years. The film’s brilliance is expressed in an exchange between Rambo and the arrogant head missionary who says that they are going to Burma “change peoples lives,” to which Rambo responds:

“Are you bringing weapons?”

“Of course not.”

“Then you’re not changing anything.”

What “Rambo” reminds us of is that, as Mao put it, “Political power comes from the barrel of a gun,” not from the well-wishing of NGO’s. “Rambo” should be commended for its borderline-parodical portrayal of these liberal Christian missionaries whose talk of pacifism and “making a difference” really does ring hollow next to the film’s excessive violence. When the Burmese army (of course) captures the missionaries, it is up to Rambo and a weirdly-multicultural team of mercenaries to go rescue them and strike a blow for the Karen people in the Burmese civil conflict along the way, like some vigilante United Nations task force.

“Rambo” is by far the most violent film in the series. The battle scenes are an overwhelming spectacle. Fire and computer-generated blood are everywhere. Children are dismembered. Men are eaten alive by animals. Bodies are rearranged most creative ways imaginable. With their quick cuts and boundless grotesquery, these scenes are halfway between Sergei Eisenstein and Hieronymus Bosch. Sure, it is pure violence offered up for uncritical consumption as entertainment, and it is not even good filmmaking. But, these scenes are nonetheless captivating, especially when, after the nearly avant-garde montages of horror end, they are capped off with genre clichés (swelling music, close-ups of emotionally fraught faces heroically blackened with blood and grime) that feel strangely out of place, as though the whole film were some kind of perverse, high-concept parody.

Don’t get me wrong: “Rambo” is a stupid and exploitative film. Women exist only to be rescued (if they’re white) or to be gang raped (if they’re not). The plot is not really about the Burmese civil war at all, but about the white people who get entangled in it, and the Burmese themselves are portrayed not so much as people but as masses of brown flesh to be butchered in the most spectacular way possible—or as butchers themselves. The only significant Burmese character is the brooding, silent (or at least un-subtitled) Burmese army officer who acts as ringmaster of the genocide. With burning villages reflecting in his aviator sunglasses, he is a serviceable villain, but his portrayal as a pederast is the film’s least tasteful gesture.

Nonetheless, there are penetrating moments of truth scattered amidst the blood and rubble. When Rambo says to a mercenary, “Live for nothing or die for something,” he names precisely what is prohibited by the self-designated forces of “progress” today. Today one is free to do anything but die for a cause, and to believe in anything except that which you might have to kill for, or else one is labeled an “extremist.” Meanwhile, the ongoing dirty work of politics is farmed out to the armies of other countries, or done with advanced weapons technology that keep our beautiful souls at a safe distance. Perhaps the only way to get Rambo’s valuable message across in theatres today, when soft-headed liberals have monopolized “serious” films, is to disguise it in a dumb action flick.

draft of a short play

Zeno's Berlin:
A Scene for Puppets and/or Humans, Based on the “Para” Paintings of Neo Rauch

by Patrick Harrison

“I understand myself to be a director of plays.” – Neo Rauch (1969- )

“The infinite cannot traverse the finite.” – Aristotle, Physics

Die Flamme (The Flame), 2007

Vorort (Suburb), 2007

Post-War America, in one of those American towns where such temporal distinctions lose their meaning.

A proscenium divided in thirds. The left two thirds are foreground, the interior of a small convenience store. Behind the counter is a man who smokes only one cigarette that burns down forever without ever going out. The right third is a suburban street, lined with houses, that goes on forever. Far in the distance there is an intersecting road that runs parallel to the audience. Even further back, at the vanishing point, is the Thing.

The Thing is hurtling toward the foreground from the vanishing point, but never gets any closer. The Thing looks like a train, and spews out a long tail of black smoke into the clear blue sky. Maybe it is a train, but it sounds like an airplane, or, at any rate, the hum of an approaching, low-flying airplane is heard throughout the scene, rising in pitch and volume with agonizing slowness.

Foreground right, a person stands in the middle of the street with a radio and semaphore flags. His back is to the audience; we never see his face. He appears to be communicating with the Thing using semaphore: the Thing squawks to him over the radio; he responds in semaphore. Occasionally he looks through binoculars at the Thing.

Perfunctory squawk.
Perfunctory semaphore.
Interrogative squawk?
Answering semaphore.
Interrogative squawk?
Elaborate, explanatory semaphore.
Clarifying squawk.
Clarifying semaphore!

During the answering semaphore, a man appears on the distant, parallel road, turns onto the main street, walking to the foreground. On his way down the street, he blocks the Thing’s view of the semaphore man, making communication difficult. The new man wears a backpack laden with something heavy. Attached two his shoes are two large vertical wooden planks. When he walks, the planks block his view and strike his head. Though appearing to walk at a vigorous pace, he covers ground slowly, as though the earth were out from under his feet. His path winds wildly left and right down the straight road.

Visibly tired, the plank-wearing man arrives and enters the store. During the scene that follows, the man and the clerk figure do not look each other in the eye, but instead are looking past each other just to the left or the right, like two blind people talking to one another. They do not seem to be aware of this. They are cheerful and enthusiastic, but their congeniality masks a debilitating fear without object.

The action outside the store overlaps the scene within.

Clerk: You’re late.

Man: I’m early.

Immediately and alarm clock on the counter goes off.

Clerk: You’re cutting it close.

Man: There will be time to be early later.

They regard each other.

Clerk: It’s good to see you. It’s been a long time.

Man: Not that long.

Clerk: No, but it feels like forever.

Man: It does.

They shake hands. The man removes his planks, setting them against the wall like skis, and unpacks a box from his backpack.

Clerk: How are those planks working out for you?

Man: Oh great! They make walking much more difficult.

Clerk: Wonderful!

Man: Yes! Thank you very much for the recommendation.

Clerk: They look swell on you too.

Man: Thank you.

He hands the box to the clerk in exchange for a wad of cash, puts the cash in his wallet and puts the wallet back in his pocket. Simultaneously:


Clerk: Well, what’ll it be?

Man: Hmm… (scanning the merchandise) Well, how about what’s in the box?

The clerk removes from the box a Russian doll, rings it up on the cash register, and hands it to the man in exchange for more money than the clerk had just paid him.

During the course of the conversation, the two have a series of exchanges: The clerk buys a layer of the Russian doll. The Man buys the layer back. The clerk buys the layer back as well as the next layer. The Man buys back the latter layer. Et cetera. The doll is never reassembled as one: more and more dolls are produced by the transactions, increasing in number to create an implausible multiplicity of dolls. The amount of money changing hands increases similarly. Each time the clerk methodically rings everything up on the register, and each time the man methodically removes and replaces his wallet from/to his pocket. Maybe they must use the box and the dolls to hold all the money, maybe they toss Russian dolls filled with money like footballs across the store. It is a spectacle that proceeds with machinic precision and increasing speed. Their bodies labor with increasing difficulty. It takes as long as it needs to.

Clerk: I can only use a treadmill these days.

Man: Well, the great thing about the planks they’re like a treadmill that goes places.

Clerk: Yes, we don’t all have time to stay at home on the treadmill not going anywhere.

Man: That’s for sure. Wouldn’t mind it though!

Clerk: Yes, indeed, not at all!

Man: Though they do make walking even more difficult.

Clerk: Treadmills.

Man: Yes.

Thoughtful squawk
Shorter squawk.
Amused Squawk.

Clerk: How is your little girl?

Man: Married!

Clerk: Really?!

Man: (proud) Yes, indeed!

On the intersecting street in the distance, a marching band playing patriotic tunes passes by for a while, heard only faintly in the distance. They do not obstruct our view of the Thing, which has grown taller but remains still obscure on the horizon.

Semaphore, including the motions of a marching band drum major.

Clerk: Goodness me, it wasn’t but yesterday she was just a young thing helping me here at the store.

Man: I know.

Clerk: How long is it been since… They grow up so fast.

Man: Yes.

Clerk: But no matter how old she get, she’ll always be your little girl.

Man: No matter how.

Clerk: No matter how.

Frantic panicked squawking.
Frantic, panicked semaphore.

Clerk: Who is the lucky fellow?

Man: A military man, a fine young man. In the Army. From this town: Harrison boy?

Clerk: Hmm… (The clerk shakes his head: “Don’t know him.”)

Man: ’parently they’d been going with each other since high school! And here me not knowing a thing about it!

Clerk: Well kids will be—

There is an emergency. Frantic, panicked squawking and semaphore goes on continuously for the rest of this conversation. This is not just a senseless frenzy: it is deadly serious, like panicked 911 calls or a heated argument in sign language.

Man: Not like I would have minded. Tom and Betsy’s are good people and the military is a fine—

The clerk is unable to restrain his laughter any longer. There money exchanges are going at a more and more breakneck pace.

Man: (amused) What? What’s so funny?

Clerk: I knew’d all about it, tee hee! About your girl and the Harrison boy when they were kids, tee hee!

Man: How—

Clerk: Oh he’d come by here so often just to talk to her that it wasn’t hard to intuit.

Man: (beaming) Nooo!

Clerk: I never could believe you didn’t know, though, though you didn’t seem to.

Man: Why didn’t you tell me?

Clerk: Well, I didn’t think there could be no harm in it. They’re good kids. And it was fun feelin like an accomplice in them putting over their folks. That’s the best part of being young.

Man: I suppose it is.

Clerk: Besides, didn’t know anything, I just felt it.

Man: Hmph. Well I’m just tickled. I guess you did right.

The clerk smiles.

Clerk: No, no, it was your little girl did right. How is the new couple getting along?

Man: (hiding his reticence) Well… he’s been stationed abroad.

Clerk: Aw, your little girl is far away from you, huh?

Man: They’re in Berlin.

Clerk. (suddenly concerned) Oh.

For a heavy moment, they do not speak, though they continue their economic exchanges with even greater exertion. The squawking of the radio and the mad twirling of semaphore flags reaches a fever pitch.

Man: Yes, they say it is lovely there.

Clerk: I bet it is. I bet it is.

Another heavy moment. They throw the full capacity of their bodies into their rapid, machinic exchanges.

Clerk: And how is your boy?

The Man fumbles the Russian doll and money and dolls explode everywhere in a loud crash.

The squawking abruptly goes silent, the semaphore man instantly freezes, drops his flags, and looks through his binoculars at the Thing. The marching band finally exits, its music drowned out by the sound of the approaching Thing, which we now hear by itself for the first time since the beginning of the Scene, much louder and more belligerent.

Clerk: You all right?

Man: Yes I’m fine. I… I’m sorry, I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night.

Clerk: It’s fine, it’s fine.

Man: My hands were little… I lost my grip.

Clerk: Sure, sure, sure, that’s fine.

They pick up the money and dolls.

Clerk: More of them bad dreams… keeping you up?

Man: Yes… They’re not dreams, they’re called night terrors.

Clerk: Oh.

Short, bursts of squawking, as though the signal were going in and out. Through out the rest of this conversation, the transmissions and the semaphore will occur continuously. The squawking is calm, musical, and continuous: a monologue rather than a dialogue. The semaphore is equally placid: its movements are smooth and continuous, like a strange dance, expressive rather than communicative.

Inside the store, the Man is clearly shattered, barely maintaining his composure.

Clerk: They’re like nightmares…?

Man: They’re bad like nightmares ’cept they’re not dreams like nightmares. They’re not about anything. You just feel afraid… anxious…

Clerk: I see.

Man: But not about anything in particular, like monsters or some kind of danger… like being on stage without lines or being on top of some great big height… You’re not afraid of anything in particular. You’re just afraid. Can’t put a name on it.

Clerk: (uncomfortable) I see.

Man: Sometimes my wife wakes me up from them, and I don’t know who I am.

A long pause in conversation and activity. We listen to the Thing and the gentle flapping of semaphore flags in the silence.

Clerk: (changing the subject) They say the planes are coming soon.

Man: Yes. Wonder when they’re gonna get here.

As in cinema, an “iris out” transition to black, centered on the Thing.


i am rebooting the blog--first created in 2005 with only two posts, one of which i deleted because it felt a bit more like a diary entry than public writing--because i have become morbidly enthralled with blogs lately. beneath are some thoughts i shared with a friend who also has a blog devoted primarily to academic-y stuff. it is very cursory and a filled with grammatical errors, but grammar is classist so whatever:

Been reading your blog, I hope you keep adding to it, it’s very interesting. Plus it will probably be an invaluable asset for you as an aspiring academic: it seems every hip left wing professor has a blog these days (,,, among many many others, and, hippest and most crassly self-promotional of them all, Academics are increasingly turning themselves into talking heads and freelance intellectuals as universities have taken up the Stanely Fish style of academic administration, trading star academics around for bigger and bigger salaries like baseball players (what kind of steroid does an academic use? We can only hope they’re all as hip as Benjamin when it comes to drugs…). If academics are MLB player, then I guess their blogs are like academic trading cards, then, publicity gimmicks that are rapidly accruing a value of their own. Is it a pity to see academics turning their activity into Spectacle, including even the craggiest old Maoists and Eastern Bloc-er’s, or is it just a recognition that the Left needs to try to get a stake in what little of the internet hasn’t already been territorialized by corporate capital?

It is interesting that Zizek has defending his involvement in “popular” media as a way to avoid the shit show of the American academy. When the Boston globe asked Zizek whether there was anything “unseemly” about his writing for the Abercrombie and Fitch Quarterly catalogue in 2003, he said ''If I were asked to choose between doing things like this to earn money and becoming fully employed as an American academic, kissing ass to get a tenured post, I would with pleasure choose writing for such journals!'' Perhaps rather than react with overt hostility to Zizek’s pop-star methods—his shilling for A&F, appearance on the Children of Men DVD, the 3 documentaries that have been made about him, his appearance on a few American infotainment—we should read Zizek as the fulfillment of the marketization of the academy: now the “academy” as an intellectual-market enterprise no longer needs the academy as the institution. But what the hell, the French have been doing it ever since existentialism, right? The real test is whether market strategies will compromise the integrity of academic work any more than the ostensibly anti-market tenure system already has…

And what is this marketization of the academy itself a symptom of? Against the right-wing assertion that the academy is overly politicized, we should assert that it is in fact utterly depoliticized: what matters most in the academy right now is making your buck from the highest bidder, not the collective formulation of rigorous political and intellectual movements. It is no wonder then that it is inter-disciplinary “identity” departments like Africana Studies and Latin American Studies departments that have become the last bastions of more dedicated political thinking in the academy. Of course, nothing protects such departments form marketization either: but what has made them hold together marginally better than philosophy, comp lit, English, and culture studies departments is the ideological heritage that created these departments as the results of broader political struggles for rights and power for various ‘minority’ groups (two parenthetical thoughts: (1) lets never use this word ‘minority’ again because it sucks all the history out of the terms “black” “woman” “queer”, etc., the history that constitutes the very identity of these groups and is the substance of all their political claims for power, and turns politics into an a-historical task of apportionment (2) True there was a certain political fight behind the creation of culture studies departments, but I think that that political fight—what do we do with all these old Marxists and people who read French philosophy?—is one largely internal to the academy rather than one effective in society at large).

Friday, August 05, 2005

Self Aggrandizement

I've always been opposed to blogs, seeing them as worthless acts of self importance, but then I've always found something delicious about hypocrisy.