Friday, August 23, 2013

Nixon, Obama, and the weight of paper

[This is an excerpt from the latest lecture in my Studying Sociology Through Film paper. You can find the texts of a couple of previous lectures here and here.]

This week one and a half thousand people filled Auckland’s Town Hall to protest against a new law which will make it easier for their government to spy on their e mails and other communications. The dissidents listened to speeches by a range of politicians, including the leaders of the Labour Party, the Green Party, and the Mana Party, and also heard from the German-born billionaire IT businessman Kim Dotcom. 

Last year Dotcom’s mansion on the edge of Auckland was stormed by seventy-six armed police, who were backed by two helicopters. The police arrested Dotcom at the request of the United States government, which wants to deport him to face charges of internet piracy. Dotcom is free on bail while he appeals against his deportation. The Dotcom case has become controversial, because it has been revealed that the New Zealand government spied illegally on him at the request of the United States.  

The meeting in Auckland echoes recent protests in the northern hemisphere against spying by governments and large corporations and related misuses of power. In May of this year Edward Snowden, a computer specialist who had worked with the American government, leaked a large amount of information to Britain’s Guardian newspaper and to the Washington Post. 
In the opinion of many experts, the material that Snowden passed on showed that the United States had been using ‘anti-terrorist’ legislation passed after the 9/11 attacks as an excuse to spy on the e mails of millions of its citizens, as well as to spy on the people and governments of many foreign nations. The United States has been attempting to arrest Snowden for passing on this information, but he has fled to Russia, where he is hiding. 
This week David Miranda, the partner of Glen Greenwald, one of the Guardian journalists who took information from Snowden, was detained for nine hours at London’s Heathrow airport in an operation which seems to have been jointly organised by British and American security forces. Miranda had his computer confiscated, and the Guardian newspaper has had its offices raided by British security forces.
Protesters against the treatment of Snowden, Miranda and the Guardian have accused the American and British governments of harassing the media and repressing free speech. Supporters of Snowden say that he should be congratulated rather than arrested for exposing the extent of America’s electronic spying.
It is appropriate that, at this time when alleged abuse of power by the American government and its allies is such a hot topic, we should watch All the President’s Men, a film which documents the way that two young journalists at the Washington Post, Bob Woodward, played by Robert Redford, and Carl Bernstein, played by Dustin Hoffman, discovered a series of ‘dirty tricks’ being used by the government of Richard Nixon against its opponents. 

In 1972 Nixon was elected to a second term as the President of the United States. During his campaign for reelection, though, Nixon allowed a group of his supporters to break into offices of the opposition Democratic Party and steal documents from those offices. Nixon wanted to read the documents and discover the plans of his Democratic opponent for the presidency, George McGovern.
Unfortunately for Nixon, the burglars he had employed were caught at the scene of their crime. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein became curious about what the burglars were doing and who was paying them, and launched an investigation which led them all the way to the president. The Democratic Party offices which were burgled were located in a Washington, DC building called Watergate, and the controversy that developed as a result of Woodward and Bernstein’s investigations became known as the Watergate scandal.
Nixon used a variety of tactics to try to avoid being linked to the burglary. He forced two of his advisers to resign and take the blame for the event. They were sent to prison, but Nixon was unable to convince the media and the public that he was not involved in the crime. As he became increasingly fearful of the investigation that Woodward and Bernstein had started, Nixon began to spy on staff at the White House and elsewhere in government. He secretly recorded tens of thousands of hours of conversations, partly to find out if his staff were loyal to him and partly to try to gain material he could use to blackmail anyone who turned against him.
Eventually, nearly two years after the Watergate burglary, Nixon resigned as president. He would have faced criminal charges and a likely prison term if his successor as president, Gerald Ford, had not offered him a pardon for any crimes he committed during his term in office. Nixon is the only American president to resign from office, and his reputation has never recovered from the Watergate scandal.
When Edward Snowden showed that the Bush and Obama administrations had spied on huge numbers of Americans, many commentators were reminded of the Nixon era. But where Nixon was only able to spy on a relatively small number of people, owing to the pre-digital technology of the early 1970s, governments of the twenty-first century can use the internet and advanced software to monitor the communications of millions of people around the world. 
All the President’s Men was directed by Alan Pakula, and based on the book of the same name published by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in 1974. Where Woodward and Bernstein’s book covers the whole of the Watergate saga, from the initial break-in until Nixon’s resignation, Pakula’s film covers only the first seven months after the burglary. All the President’s Men won several awards at the 1976 Academy Awards, and is still highly regarded by film critics.

Pakula’s movie avoids sensationalism. There are no car chases or explosions, and Nixon never appears in person, though he is often shown on television. The excitement and tension increase incrementally rather than suddenly, as we observe the careful and sometimes frustrating work of Woodward and Bernstein, and share their gradual realisation that what they had thought was a minor crime is in fact a scandal big enough to change the course of American history.
Last semester, in the Modern Pacific History paper, we discussed the strange fate that Sylvester Stallone's Rambo movies had enjoyed in the Pacific. Rambo was supposed to be a violently nationalistic American, but in Tonga he has become a local hero, and in Bougainville he was an inspiration for the independence movement which shut down a massive foreign-owned mine and defeated an army that was trained by Australia and supported by the United States. 

The reception of the Rambo films in the Pacific reminds us that any piece of culture underdetermines its interpretation. An artist may set out to encode one meaning in a picture or statement, but her audience may give her image or words a quite different meaning. I want to talk about a couple of aspects of the visual style of All The President's Men, and suggest ways in which those aspects might be interpreted today. 

Pakula's imagery emphasises the power of the United States government, and the relatively tiny resources of two young journalists. He repeatedly shows Woodward and Bernstein hurrying around Washington, DC, dwarfed by the massive and austere buildings of organisations like the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Sometimes the director seems to have placed his camera crew on the rooves of these joyless palaces. When the two men visit the the Library of Congress, that literary arsenal of the American political class, Pakula's camera adopts a ceiling's-eye view, so that we can often see only their hands and the tops of their heads. 
Viewed from the rooves and balconies of Washington, the heroes of All The President's Men seem almost pitifully vulnerable. As Pakula's cameras follow Woodward and Bernstein down a sidewalk or up a staircase, we imagine a sniper sizing them up. 
Pakula's shots of his protagonists seem even more sinister today, when the American government commands a fleet of sleepless and deadly drone aircraft. Obama was hailed as a peacemaker when he took office in 2009 - the academics of Sweden even embarrassed themselves by awarding him the Nobel Peace Prize for that year - but he has ordered drone attacks which have killed at least three thousand people in the Middle Eastern nations of Yemen and Pakistan. Today it is easier than ever for the leader of the United States to dispose of his enemies. 
But some of Pakula's other visual devices perhaps now produce effects he did not intend in 1975. 
All The President's Men is a movie filled with paper: there are the piles of typescript on the desks of Woodward and Bernstein and their fellow Washington Post journalists, the sheets hanging like tongues from hundreds of stuttering typewriters, the overstuffed files and folders of the archive rooms in government departments, and the columns of books in solemn libraries. 
In the world of All The President's Men, information is captured and corralled on paper. Sometimes, as they slog their way through an archive, or struggle with the fifth draft of an article, Woodward and Bernstein seem about to be defeated by the weight of all that paper. 
Pakula is not the only artist to make paper into a symbol of the complexity and obscurity of the world. In Franz Kafka's studies of bureaucratic absurdity, the typewriter and the file become tools with which truth can be evaded rather than revealed. Kafka earned a living writing confidential reports on insurance claims, and so understood the power a few pieces of paper could attain over human beings. In Orson Welles' film adaption of Kafka's The Trial we visit a lawyer's home, and see it filled with millions of pieces of loose paper, the detritus of a legal system whose workings are chaotic and malign.
Don De Lillo's great novel Libra introduces us to Nicholas Branch, an FBI officer who has spent patient and fruitless years investigating the assassination of John F Kennedy. After receiving consignment after consignment of documents from his FBI colleagues, from sympathetic academics, and from sleepless conspiracy theorists, Branch has surrendered much of his office to paper. The rising piles of photocopied articles, mimeographed newsletters, blown-up photographs, and confidential reports are slowly consuming the pocket of air around his desk. De Lillo makes Branch into a symbol of the intellectual paralysis that can be brought on by an oversupply of information. 
I would like to suggest, though, that some of the symbolic properties of paper have changed in recent decades, as digital technology has altered the way that we collect, store, and transmit information. 

Today's journalists, bureaucrats, and spies tend to compose their reports and requests on glowing screens rather than typewriters, and to communicate them using fibre optic cable rather than mail bags or drop boxs. Newspapers and government departments have replaced their old, dogeared archives with electronic databases. Even academic libraries, those celebrated temples of paper, have been wowed by digital technology, and today often seem to prefer e books and journals to traditional 'hard copy' volumes. 
It is significant that the net, with its many gaps, and the cloud, with its fluffy fluidity, have emerged as popular metaphors for the new way that information is stored and shared in the digital age. With its global reach but lack of a recognisable locus, the internet is both pervasive and elusive. 
I want to argue that some of the anxiety we suffer when we imagine governments using the internet to spy on us derives from our feeling that the internet lacks both finitude and form. 
In the 1970s the CIA and the FBI and Richard Nixon's private army of goons kept files on thousands of their enemies, using wiretapping and other dirty tricks to gather the information that ended up in those files. But the technical limitations of pre-digital espionage meant that the reach of the bad guys was always limited, and their information was always piecemeal. There were only so many men in trenchcoats available to follow reporters through rainy streets, and so many spooks available to stick a listening device on a phone line.
Today, though, the internet has made the most esoteric information about our lives and opinions easily available to intelligence agencies. A handful of geeks working for the right government can harvest and analyse millions of e mails and skype sessions in an eight hour shift. The spy in the trenchcoat is obsolete. 
It is notable that some of most popular neuroses of our age involve malign electricity and evil computers. Doctors and psychologists have used term 'electromagnetic sensitivity' to describe the (psychosomatic) pain, depression, and anxiety that increasing numbers of Westerners suffer when they get too close to an internet connection or an active cellphone. Psychiatrists regularly encounter patients who are tortured by delusions about the internet. Some of them claim that their minds are being controlled by fingers on a distant keyboard; others fear disappearing through their computer screens into some virtual hell. 
I want to suggest that, at a time when we are increasingly frightened of an amorphous, uncontrollable realm of electronic information, the old-fashioned paper file has acquired a reassuring and almost romantic quality. The office cubby hole bulging with papers and the room full of noisy typewriters have become symbols of the finitude and comparative manageability of information. 
Backward-looking television programmes like Life on Mars and movies like Zodiac dwell lovingly on the paper detritus of the police headquarters and newspaper office, showing off yellowing charge sheets and fat broadsheets as though they were fine works of art. Don De Lillo may have turned paper into a sinister symbol in Libra, but the journalists who interview him are always charmed by the fact that he works on an old-fashioned typewriter, and builds his novels out of piles of loose papers. New York City hipsters have taken to holding 'type-ins', where they try to bang out as many words a minute as Jack Kerouac. 
For me, and I suspect for many other twenty-first century viewers, the piles of paper which are almost constant companions to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in All The President's Men have a strangely comforting quality. They suggest not only the accessibility but the comprehensibility of information. As incriminating files and typed drafts for articles pile up on the desks of Woodward and Bernstein, the progress of our heroes is made tangible.  
[Posted by Scott Hamilton] 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Who needs poetry?

Back in the late '90s I took a paper called Image and Text with Tony Green, a long-time and soon-to-be-retired lecturer in the Art History department at the University of Auckland. In his first couple of lessons Tony made it clear to his audience that he was frustrated, if not disillusioned, with the demands of pedagogy, and near the end of our course he announced, in a voice which might have been mischievious, that he had decided to award every student in the paper a B grade, no matter how much or how little they wrote in their essays. Lecture attendance dropped off rather rapidly thereafter.

I remember considering Tony Green's rejection of the intricacies of grading a sort of abdication of intellectual responsibility, and a sign of softheadedness. Near the end of this year's first semester at the 'Atenisi Institute, though, I felt a sudden surge of sympathy for Tony.

Tevita Manuatu, who was made dux of 'Atenisi in 2012 and is on the verge of finishing his Bachelors Degree at the tender age of twenty, had attended my Creative Writing classes assiduously, and had not ceased to argue that literature, and indeed all forms of art, were somewhat eccentric and superfluous pursuits. When I talked about the visionary trances of poets like Rimbaud or the intricate imaginary worlds created by novelists like Don De Lillo, Tevita argued in favour of the 'objective' methods of scientists and lawyers, and the transparent, universally accessible texts that these professionals supposedly produce. Why, Tevita wanted to know, didn't poets accept the necessity of communicating, in calm and clear language, with the widest possible audience? Why did they succumb to obscure images and private reveries?

When I asked students to produce 'subjective maps' of their lives, which should combine features of the geography of Tonga with their own memories and fantasies, Tevita eschewed the distorted distances, grotesque illustrations, and scabrous annotations used by other students, and instead created an coolly accurate map of his home village of Kala'au, complete with quasi-ethnographic notes on land distribution and use.

Towards the end of the semester Tevita gave me a carefully argued essay called 'Creativity', in which he argued against the possibility of deciding that any work of art was more worthy than another. Shortly afterwards he handed in a long and fascinating oral history of Kala'au, which he had collected at the knees of elderly members of his village. Tevita's history spanned centuries, and acted as a sort of complement to his map, explaining the names which landmarks like Niue Cemetery and Tsunami Rock had acquired.

How could I give Tevita the mark his final piece of work for Creative Writing deserved, when he had scorned the very notion of literature? I decided, eventually, to give him the A he deserved, but not before I'd understood the dark nights of the soul that Tony Green must have suffered as he struggled to balance the various qualities of his students and award them fair marks.

Here's a text Tevita's criticisms of literature inspired from me. I'd like to think that I'm defying Tevita's arguments by making them into poetry, even if the poetry in question is perfunctory and mediocre.

I'll post excerpts from Tevita's history of Kala'au on this blog soon.

Poems against Poetry

Ted Hughes wrote about soaring hawks
but drop his Collected Poems from the shelf
and it flies low
and lands
like a chook.

No need to fell a tree,
to slice it fine 
as paper:
the people of Rekohu wrote on trunks,
the windy kopi grove
was their Alexandria.


At Castle church Luther swung his hammer
ninety-five times.


Do not bore me with the Louvre's
painted caves, 
the wolf whistling
of symphony orchestras,
archaeologists digging like dogs
at old rubbish dumps.

Words as clear as a bleb of ice
are my only instrument,
and minds are the only artefacts
I collect.  


Trakl's giant pale orb
is a Japanese fisherman's float,
not the gouged eye
of Poseidon.


Words want to be 
deeds. Words want to rise
in bold type,
above a smudged photo
of the burnt-out van.

Words want to scrawl themselves
on a door,
the evening before it opens
to the Special Police.


Words are not deeds.
Bloodstains on broken doors are deeds.
In a poem words
are hardly even words.


The nails that Luther hammered into Castle church
were the nails that pierced his saviour. 


As the horse breaks in its rider
so these words will read their reader. 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Choosing the wrong Doctor Who

Once again my fellow New Zealanders have disappointed me. In a poll run by the Herald, they have chosen Jon Pertwee as their favourite of the eleven actors who have played Doctor Who. Pertwee may have been a fine actor, but it seems to me that he had little understanding of the ethos and aesthetics that have made Doctor Who such an important cultural artefact.

Doctor Who could only have been created in postwar Britain. Exhausted by two World Wars, separated from much of its empire, and usurped as a political and economic power by the United States and the Soviet Union, mid-century Britain was a society attempting to adjust to altered circumstances. The hyper-jingoism which had characterised Victorian and early twentieth century popular culture in Britain - the 'muscular Christianity' of Tom Brown's Schooldays, or the mystified imperialism of Kipling, or the good-natured xenophobia of Billy Bunter - seemed suddenly to be both absurd and dangerous.

Born in Gallifrey, the planet of mandarin Timelords, and destined to roam the universe, Doctor Who was a rarified but erratic being, a sort of displaced and impoverished but nonetheless charming aristocrat. His TARDIS, with its telephone box facade and inefficient machinery, mocked the scientific versilimitude that American science fiction writers were fond of creating for their heroes. In adventure after adventure, the Doctor won victories over evil through a combination of chance, cunning, and the sort of eccentric, aleatory thinking that is usually the province of visionary artists.
Although Doctor Who was ostensibly a science fiction series, it took its real inspiration from the past. The makers of the programme looked back to the centuries before the industrialisation of Britain, when magic and science marched together. Doctor Who's ancestor is not Darwin or Edison but John Dee, the Elizabethan sage who combined astronomy with necromancy, and cast a magical spell against the Spanish armada. The classic episodes of Doctor Who, with their abrupt yet strangely logical transitions from one place or era to another, recall Shakespeare's late romances, where the medieval poet John Gower could be transported through time to the Renaissance, and an Italian duke could be deposited suddenly on a tropical isle.

Plays like The Tempest and Pericles were performed  at the Blackfriars theatre, an indoor space fitted out with twisting pipes and hidden levers that enabled Shakespeare to fill the stage with steam or foam, and thereby simulate a shipwreck or a fire or a magical rite. Blackfriars was reborn in the London warehouses that were the backdrop to so many of Doctor Who's classic episodes.

At the same time that the BBC was filming Doctor Who in cramped and chilly warehouses, California's dream factories were turning out television series like Star Trek, which projected the American Imperium into the distant future and the distant universe. Where the Doctor was anarchic artist, who assisted earthly creatures on his own terms, Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise was a servant of the American military-industrial complex, a twenty-first century James Cook who loyally reported and interpreted his geographical and ethnographic discoveries to his military and political masters. Where Doctor Who's absurd vehicle, sonic screwdrivers and blundering journeys through time mocked the pretensions of postwar science to exactitude and objectivity, Captain Kirk and his crewmates gave tedious lectures that seemed intended to make the Starship Enterprise seem a logical outgrowth of America's space and weapons programmes.

Jon Pertwee played Doctor Who from 1970 and 1974, years in which Britain's postwar malaise hardened into a crisis. Mass strikes shut down the economy and brought down Ted Heath's Tory government, students occupied universities and declared their solidarity with the revolutionaries of Vietnam, Enoch Powell and a revived fascist movement campaigned against 'coloured' immigration from the Caribbean and Pakistan, and senior members of the military and Mi5 began to make plans for a coup against the Labour government that had replaced Heath.
It was in this context of social disorder and right-wing reaction that Pertwee chose to reinvent Doctor Who as a patrician, wealthy, institutionalised figure who respected the British state, worshipped science, and both hated and feared aliens. Instead of acting as a freelance friend of humanity, Pertwee was attached to Unified Intelligence Taskforce, or UNIT, a secret arm of the British state run by the strutting, moustachioed Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, and dedicated to countering the threat that extraterrestrial invaders posed to dear old Blighty. With the help of UNIT Pertwee established his own laboratory, where he worked on devices that would defend the British state and slaughter dangerous aliens. Pertwee's Doctor was a martial arts enthusiast, who seemed to relish knocking out anybody who annoyed him. Pertwee also gave the Doctor a plummy voice and a passion for sports cars.

Jon Pertwee was replaced as Doctor by Tom Baker, a man who won a massive new following for the series. With his Bohemian trenchcoat and scarf, his habit of winning over apparently sinister aliens by offering them jelly babies, his contempt for rules and regulations, and his penchant for poetic monologues about the perversity of human ambition, Baker rescued Doctor Who from Pertwee's innovations.

For decades, Tom Baker tended to come out on top when fans of the programme were asked to name their favourite Doctor. What does the triumph of Pertwee's violent, authoritarian, reactionary Doctor Who in this new poll tell us about the mindset of Kiwis in 2013?

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Blowing the conch shell

Print media is in crisis throughout the First World. The Washington Post, which brought the American government down in the 1970s, has been losing readers and money for years, and has just been eaten for breakfast by a libertarian IT entrepreneur. Every major New Zealand paper, from Auckland's Herald to the Otago Daily Times, is steadily losing customers.

In the Kingdom of Tonga, though, newspapers are thriving. Tonga has a population of just one hundred thousand, but it boasts half a dozen weekly newspapers, and a number of rags published at less regular intervals. It isn't just the number of papers but the role they play in Tongan life which is impressive. The print media has become a poor relation of television news in the West, but in Tonga it is the newspapers which can make or break the career of a politician or entrepreneur. On outer islands untouched by television broadcasts newspapers are read as reverently as Bibles, even when they have arrived weeks late.
A good deal of the credit for the vigour of the Tongan print media belongs to 'Akilisi Pohiva, the founder and long-time leader of the country's Democratic Party. In the 1980s Pohiva, who was employed as a lecturer at Tonga's Teachers Training College, launched a newsletter called Ko e Kele'a (a kele'a, or conch shell trumpet, was often used to gather crowds and herald important news in traditional Tongan society). Despite its modest size and lack of production values, Pohiva's publication represented a challenge to Tonga's media market, which was dominated by the government-published Tonga Chronicle paper and the official organs of the country's larger churches. Kele'a soon cost Pohiva his job, but it helped inspire the journalist Kalafi Moala to set up a much larger and more professional publication called Taimi o Tonga, which in the 1990s became the loud and proud voice of Tonga's burgeoning pro-democracy movement.

In his book The Island Kingdom Strikes Back Moala describes the battles he had throughout the '90s decade with Tonga's sclerotic aristocracy, which still held almost absolute political power. Moala's defence of freedom of speech saw him spend scores of hours in courtrooms, and at one point landed him in Hua'atolitoli prison, whose grey concrete walls and barred slit windows sit incongruously amongst the banana and coconut groves of central Tongatapu. Moala and Pohiva fell out after the riot that destroyed a third of downtown Nuku'alofa in 2006, and today Taimi o Tonga competes with a revived Ko e Kele'a for the attention of progressive Tongans.
The deputy editor of Ko e Kele'a graduated from the 'Atenisi Institute several years ago, and is one of the more memorable minor characters in Tongan Ark, Paul Janman's acclaimed documentary film about the Institute. Recently 'Ofa dropped into a kava evening at 'Atenisi, and helped the school's current students sing a few songs. In Tongan Ark 'Ofa is a comical figure, who wanders around giggling in a keffiyeh and talks about pinching books from the school's library; today, though, he seems an altogether different proposition. In between songs and cups of kava he talked passionately and precisely about the performance of Ko e Kele'a and the future of the Democratic Party it supports. When I lamented the fact that Akilisi's party had been prevented from forming a government, despite winning 70% of the vote at Tonga's 2010 election, the young activist told me not to worry. "We're aiming to get 100% of the vote next time", he told me.

'Ofa was even able to explain why his paper features a regular column discussing UFOs and extraterrestrials. The column is written in Tongan, and thus tends to defeat me, but I've noticed that it is often sprinkled with non-Tongan names and terms - 'Roswell', 'coverup', 'reptillians' - beloved of the sort of conspiracy theorists who think that ET is alive and well and living in the White House basement. "It's an issue of importance to our readers", 'Ofa told me, and I'm inclined to believe him, given the tremendous popularity of science fiction in the island kingdom.

I'm pleased to see that 'Atenisi has this week placed an advertisement in Ko e Kele'a. I can't seem to post the ad as an image, which is a pity, because it features a marvellous photo of the late Futa Helu, founder of 'Atensi and long-time advisor to the Democratic Party, wearing a powder-blue academic robe as well as a lei made out of dozens of small chocolate bars. Here, though, is the text of the advertisement:

Futa Helu’s Dream Keeps Coming True

For the 40th year, ‘Atenisi Institute continues to offer tertiary courses in social science, humanities, mathematics, science, and the arts … culminating in a B.A. or B.Sc. degree received ad eundem at the University of Auckland.

This semester’s faculty boasts four PhD scholars, a Tongan linguist, and a celebrated vocalist and musician, plus an adjunct instructor from the Alliance Française. The institute’s alumni include Drs Robin Havea (sr lecturer mathematics, USP/Suva), Siosifa Ika (analyst, human services dept., Western Aus.), and ‘Opeti Taliai (dean & professor anthropology, ‘Atenisi) … and three government ministers, ‘Eiki Tu’i’āfitu (health), Dr Viliami Uasike Lātu (commerce), and Siosifa Tu’utafaiva (police).

Since June, the institute has been provisionally registered by the TNQAB, which has recently invited it to apply for prompt accreditation. For the past year, its financial affairs have been managed by Mele Finau Tu’ilotolava, currently unconditionally licensed to practice law in both Tonga and New Zealand.



P.O. BOX 90 HALAANO; TEL. 24819


OR drop by and see us!
 APPLY NOW FOR 2013 – registration open until 16 August to all current or former Form 6 or 7 students regardless of their status, history or location at any secondary school. FUTA HELU scholarships available to needy applicants.


Thursday, August 08, 2013

Zombies in utopia

[Here's the text of the latest lecture in my Studying Sociology through Film paper]

This week's movie is almost as old as the 'Atenisi Institute. The Last Man on Earth was released in 1964, after being made cheaply in Italy by the directors Ulbado Ragona and Sidney Salkow. The film is based on a novel called I Am Legend, which was published in 1954 by Richard Matheson.  

The Last Man on Earth has had a particular influence on what we might call zombie subculture. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries the zombie, understood as a grotesque, half-witted, flesh-eating creature, has been the anti-hero of scores of movies, books, comics, and video games. 

Modern zombies are typically a cause or at least a by-product of the breakdown of civilisation, and typically travel in groups. In films like Twenty-Eight Days Later, video games like Resident Evil, and television series like The Walking Dead we see them shuffling and swaying through the ruins of cities, muttering idiotic phrases and drooling blood, and searching for the sweet flesh of a handful of humans who have survived their awful fate. The remnant of healthy humanity barricades itself in a series of seemingly safe places - in malls, in schools, on remote farms, and even in prisons - and aims a variety of weapons - crossbows, high-powered rifles, mortars, machine guns - at the zombies, killing thousands of the creatures, and yet typically failing to stop the tide of undead. Zombies are moronic but relentless, pitiful but terrifying.  
It might seem odd for us to spend time considering zombies in a paper which is supposed to focus on sociology. Isn't the zombie a rather silly creature? More to the point, isn't the zombie fictitious? Shouldn't we be studying a real-life problem that twenty-first century human societies faces, like inequality or alienation or pollution, rather than the imaginary problem of a world over-run with zombies?  

I want to offer two answers to these objections. 

In the first place, I want to note the great and increasing popularity of the zombie subculture. In his recently published essay 'Locating Zombies in the Sociology of Popular Culture', University of Missouri sociologist Todd Platt notes that five billion dollars is now generated every year by forms of popular entertainment devoted to zombies. Over the last decade or so the zombie has become more popular than ever before.  

In the second place, I want to echo the great English historian EP Thompson, and argue that any aspect of a culture, no matter apparently frivolous, can act as a 'keyhole' through which we can see bigger and more important things. I think that, if we gaze through the 'keyhole' that is the zombie subculture, we can see some of the essential problems and obsessions of our era.  

The concept of the zombie originates in Haiti, where it is associated with the Vodou religion. Many Haitians believe that powerful Vodou priests have the ability to make the dead rise from their graves. The Haitian zombie is not a fearsome, flesh-eating creature, but a docile being which performs manual labour for its master.
In The Rainy Season, the book she wrote after spending years as a journalist in Haiti, Amy Wilfrentz argued that the zombie was originally a manifestation of the worst fears of Haitian slaves. Forced to plant and harvest sugarcane and other crops by their French masters, these men and women saw death as a release from their bondage, and looked forward to returning in spirit form to their African homeland. The prospect of being raised from the grave and forced to continue their labours was terrifying, because it suggested there was no escape, even in death, from slavery. The United States invaded Haiti in 1915, and remained in the country for two decades. During that time a number of American writers visited Haiti, and described the Vodou religion for their readers back home. Soon Hollywood was making movies with titles like Revolt of the Zombies and King of the Zombies 
In the 1960s zombie movies began to gain larger audiences and to be taken more seriously by reviewers. The Last Man on Earth was one of the first films to link zombies to the destruction of civilisation. As you will see, the film's hero, a scientist played by Vincent Price, has survived a virus which has turned other humans, including even his wife, into zombies. The film opens with a series of silent, lingering shots of deserted apartment complexes and motorway systems. These monuments of modernity have suddenly become as melancholy as the ruins of ancient Rome.  

The Last Man on Earth prepared the way for George Romero's very influential 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, in which zombies swarm across a contemporary American landscape, destroying civilisation one bite at a time. 

In 2008, a couple of scholars at Berkeley University taught a course called The Zombie Film. In their outline for the course, Jeremy Cheng and Cheryl Mark talked about the 'unpleasurably pleasurable' sensations that zombie movies give to their fans. Cheng and Mark used this awkward phrase to express the paradoxical fact that we find zombies revolting and frightening, and yet enjoy watching them swarm across movie and game screens. How can we understand the immense popularity of the apocalyptic zombie today? Why do so many of us enjoy seeing flesh-eating creatures rampaging through the ruins of our cities? 

I want to try to suggest an explanation for the zombie phenomenon by looking at some of the old impulses and ideas which lie, half-submerged, in this new entertainment genre.  

My son enjoys playing with the babushka, a Russian toy in which a series of dolls are hidden inside each other. My friend Adrian Price tells me that, during a visit to Russia a few years ago, he acquired a babushka in which the largest doll was painted to look like Vladimir Putin. After he slid open the doll, Adrian found Boris Yeltsin, Putin's predecessor as leader of Russia; inside Yeltsin was Josef Stalin, the old dictator of the Soviet Union. The person who carved Adrian's babushka was making a point about history. Inside the present, he was saying, lies the past. To understand the present properly we need to understand the past.  

Just like a Russian doll, one form of culture can have another buried inside it. I want to argue that the zombie subculture is a descendant of the utopian and dystopian literature which was an important part of European culture for hundreds of years. Some of you will have studied Plato's dialogue Republic with Maikolo Horowitz last year, and know that it offers, in a fair amount of detail, a blueprint for an ideal society. Plato tells us who should lead such a society - he wants, of course, philosopher-kings in charge - explains how discipline should be maintained, and even provides instructions for those who would farm the soil of utopia.  
From the beginning, the concept of utopia has been connected dialectically with the concept of dystopia. Just as we can't have the concept of wealth without the idea of poverty, so we can't understand the notion of an ideal society without being able to imagine its hellish opposite. Sometimes one and the same society can be a dystopia and a utopia. While some of Plato's readers have been impressed by his vision of the ideal society, others have found it nightmarish. The distinguished New Zealand classicist Ted Jenner, for instance, thinks that Plato's Republic would have been an awful place to live, on account of its dictatorial government and its ban on poetry. 

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries hundreds of books describing the outlines of the ideal or worst society were published in Europe and in the Americas. Some of them, like the English socialist William Morris' News from Nowhere, which described a society where class divisions had been abolished and where work was less important than pleasure, are still read today.  

The twentieth century saw a series of revolutions and attempts to establish radically new societies. After taking power in 1917, for example, Russia's communists tried to turn their country into a classless and atheistic society where the old influences of the church and the wealthy were absent. For many observers, revolutions like Russia's represented attempts to build utopias in the real world. These revolutions seemed to show that it was possible to change the world, and to make it better place.  

But the series of revolutions which broke out early in the twentieth century eventually disappointed many of their followers. The Soviet Union became not a utopia but a dull, repressive society, and collapsed in 1991. The end of the Soviet Union and other revolutionary societies in the early '90s encouraged influential Western politicians and intellectuals to claim that American-style free market capitalism was the only economic and social system which could survive in the modern world. According to them, the sort of radical change which the Soviet Union had once represented had been shown to be a dangerous illusion, and the stock exchanges, shopping malls, and sprawling cities of America provided the only real model for future human societies. Proponents of free market capitalism used the acronym TINA, which stands for 'There Is No Alternative', to justify their policies.  
More than twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, no new alternative to American-style capitalism has caught the imagination of the world's peoples. As we saw last week, the global financial crisis of 2008 has created ongoing economic problems in many nations. Even many people who have not been affected by the economic disasters of recent years still worry about other features of contemporary society. They fret about the danger global warming poses to the environment, or the impact of consumer culture, with its glorification of money and shopping, on the young.  

I want to argue that, because a credible alternative to capitalist society has disappeared, we are increasingly inclined to use movies and other forms of entertainment that show an apocalyptic future as locations for discussions about the problems that beset us and about what might be done to solve these problems. Since we cannot imagine the society in which we live being changed radically by political action - by voting, or street protests, or a general strike - we imagine it changed by some catastrophe like the arrival of an army of zombies. The post-apocalypse story has become today's equivalent of the utopian and dystopian writings of the nineteenth century, or the discussions about the Soviet Union and other revolutionary societies which were such a part of the twentieth century.  

There have always been utopian and dystopian elements lurking in the post-apocalypse story. In John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids, which was published in 1951 and has become one of the most popular of all post-apocalypse stories, inspiring a film, a television series, and a radio play, the vast majority of humans have been turned blind by comet-like objects which flashed across the sky one night. The sighted humans form small groups which advocate different models for the rebuilding of civilisation. One group, whose leader is a left-wing radical in the tradition of the Russian revolution, wants to treat the masses of blind people and the sighted minority as equals. Another group is led by pious Christians who look to the Bible for solutions to the world's crisis. Yet another group proposes returning to the Middle Ages, and recreating a feudal system where the sighted lord it over the blind. Wyndham uses his novel to outline and discuss some of the different ways in which a society can be organised.  

Kim Paffenroth would probably agree with my remarks about zombie movies. Paffenroth, who lectures at a Christian college in America, uses his book Gospel of the Living Dead to argue that the zombie film has evolved in recent decades into a form of social criticism. Movies like Night of the Living Dead offer us, Paffenroth insists, a 'chilling moan from our conscience'. They show us what is wrong with our world, and sometimes suggest how new and better worlds might be built.  

British director Danny Boyle's Twenty-Eight Days Later is perhaps the most popular of all twenty-first century zombie films. The heroes of Boyle's story are a man and a woman who travel across England pursued by hordes of zombies infected with a 'rage virus' created by scientists. After forming a de facto family by adopting an orphaned girl, the couple encounter a group of soldiers who have formed an all-male, hierarchical, strictly disciplined mini-society in a barricaded country mansion. The soldiers have managed to hold back the zombies, but their macho world collapses when they encounter the wandering family. Twenty-Eight Days Later plays on British fears about the misuse of science by the state, the creeping militarisation of life in the aftermath of 9/11, and the breakdown of the family. Boyle shows the militarised world as a dystopia, and the tiny world of his heroes' improvised family as a fragile utopia.  

But it seems to me that the popularity of the zombie subculture can't only be explained by a desire to imagine an alternative reality, where American-style capitalism has come to grief and alternative social systems must be created. The tremendous violence of zombie films calls for an additional, darker explanation. The mass slaughter of zombies in films like Night of the Living Dead and Twenty-Eight Days Later has given audiences pleasure, as a visit to internet forums where zombie fans chat demonstrates, and the popularity of the Resident Evil games, which allow their players to become zombie-killers, speaks for itself. 

It seems to me that, for twenty-first century audiences uncomfortable with the killing of large numbers of humans in the action flicks of earlier eras, the zombie movie offers a guilt-free gorefest. While the victims of James Bond and Rambo were human, even if evil, the zombies who die in movies like Twenty-Eight Days Later suffer from a virus which has turned them into a different and inferior species. To kill them is mercy, rather than murder. It is hard to see the blood and body parts of zombies flying about without remembering Freud's claim that the id - the pleasure-seeking, unempathetic, irrational part of the human mind - seeks continually to escape from the control of the civilising part of the mind he called the superego.  

The Last Man on Earth is an important film partly because it not only raises the question of how to build a new society but confronts audiences with their desire to dehumanise zombies. The hero of the film eventually comes into contact with a young woman who appears to be free of the virus which has turned the rest of humanity into zombies. After taking a sample of her blood, though, he discovers that she is infected with the virus, and she confesses to belonging to a group of sufferers who have learnt to overcome some of their symptoms. These semi-zombies are attempting to build a new, post-human society, and they eventually put the hero to death. In Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, the doomed hero accepts his fate, acknowledging that, as an uninfected human being, he is the symbol of a bygone world, 'a legend' in the making. In The Last Man on Earth the hero dies angrily, shouting "You're all a bunch of freaks!" at the part-zombie post-humans, but his status as the last member of an outmoded species is acknowledged.  

In the big budget 2007 movie I Am Legend, though, the ending of Matheson's book and its 1964 film adaption is fundamentally changed. The hero, who is played by Will Smith, produces a vaccine which turns zombies back into normal, healthy humans. Smith is killed by zombies near the end of the film, but his vaccine resurrects human civilisation, and the film ends happily. It can be argued that, by restoring humanity to health, the 2007 version of I Am Legend tries to evade some of the big questions about societal crisis and society-building that other post-apocalypse movies raise.
Some possible questions for discussion
  1. Do you find it hard or easy to imagine the society you live in being radically reshaped, either by a natural disaster like the outbreak of a deadly disease or by political action? A recent study reported by Islands Business magazine and the Matangi Tonga news site concluded that a tsunami could easily wipe out almost the whole of Nuku’alofa, and therefore leave Tonga without a functioning government and without most of its industries and shops. Do you think that such a disaster could lead to the breakdown of the ordinary rules of life in the country, and the appearance of the sort of savage behaviour shown in zombie movies?
  1. Do you think it is useful to think about utopias and dystopias, or are fantasies about the ideal society and the worst possible society unhelpful distractions from reality? In other words, was Plato wasting his time when he composed his Republic?
  1. How do you feel when you watch a zombie movie, or play a game like Resident Evil? Do you experience the contradictory ‘unpleasurably pleasurable’ sensations that Berkeley University scholars described? In other words, do you feel frightened, but enjoy being frightened?  
  1. Does violence towards zombies, either on the movie or the game screen, seem to you different than violence against humans? Would it be appropriate to mourn the death of a zombie?
  1. How do you feel about the way in which a failed human society is superseded, at the end of The Last Man on Earth, by the new species created out of the virus which has swept the world? Is the ‘last man’ justified in condemning those who replace him as ‘freaks’?
 [Posted by Scott Hamilton]