criticism, political economy, politics

Degrees of Absolute Evil


I would argue that the text of the moment is The Man in the High Castle, the book written by Philip K. Dick (1962) and the series created by Frank Spotnitz (2015) based on the premise that the Allies lost WWII to Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, an alternate history pursued in two genres with substantial differences. The novel reads more like philosophy as it makes us privy to the characters’ thoughts while the series is a suspense thriller, hence its more obvious plot structure and emphasis on action. Race, especially in the uncanny reversals between white and yellow, is very palpable in the novel, but Dick’s characterization of Juliana leaves a lot to be desired (an understatement; although what she does toward the end does make up for it) whereas she is the lead in the series. The most striking difference, however, lies in the depiction of the Japanese, a difference, I argue, that sheds light on the various forms taken by imperialist power predicated on violence, repression, and the blatant disregard for human life, and hence on degrees of absolute evil.

Weirdly, the Japanese are portrayed in the novel—I don’t quite know how to put it—as “too nice” (again, I would stress how weird this is). Maybe this is because, unlike in the series where they are abrasively present, the Kempeitai, the secret police of the Imperial Japanese Army, does not figure prominently in the novel; as such, we only get acquainted with Japanese characters that, as in the series, are sympathetic. The portrayal of the Japanese, however, does not rely merely on omission. Early on, we find Tagomi, Trade Minister in San Francisco (part of the Pacific States ruled by the Japanese), a “kindly” (212) “Buddhist” (211), the figure of wisdom in both the novel and the series, telling a German co-conspirator, “During the war, […] I held minor post in District of China. In Shanghai. There, at Hongkew, a settlement of Jews, interned by Imperial Government for duration. Kept alive by JOINT relief. The Nazi minister at Shanghai requested we massacre the Jews. I recall my superiors’ answer. It was, ‘Such was not in accord with humanitarian considerations.’ They rejected the request as barbaric. It impressed me” (76). This is not historically consistent, even in the context of the alternate history of the novel. Japanese soldiers were notorious in their brutality in WWII in places like the Philippines—just ask the comfort women and the soldiers of the Death March. War crimes and human rights violations were part and parcel of life in an empire that, like its German counterpart, was militarist, state nationalist, expansionist, and totalitarian, if under the banner of the sun.

In contrast, in the series, the Japanese police is well represented, and they’re not as bad as the Nazis, but … Juliana’s foray into the Neutral Zone (the Rockies) in a quest, as her sister’s substitute (not in the novel), to join the Resistance and find the Man in the High Castle puts Frank, her boyfriend whose grandfather happens to be Jewish, in the hands of Inspector Kido, the head of the Kempeitai (the analogous scene in the book is Frank’s arrest by American policemen, who threaten, even though he’s US-born, to deport him to Germany [205-6]). Kido brings in Frank’s sisters and her kids as well, locks them in a room and then tells Frank, “You’ve heard of Zyklon D? […] It is much improved since the war. Odorless and fast-acting. They’ll fall asleep and never wake up” (S1E2) (in contrast, in the novel, Frank reflects about how the Japanese “would no more set up gas ovens than they would melt their wives into sealing wax” [10]). The allusion to the Nazi gas chambers is unmistakable, if made more “civilized”—consistent with what in the novel is alluded to as Japanese subtlety in contrast to white crudeness —this form of torture suggested as deliberate, Kido having told Frank earlier that “Jews don’t get to decide if they’re Jews.” Kido does all this so that Frank would tell him where Juliana is; otherwise, he doesn’t care: “There are no Jews in Japan, after all.” Kido, in other words, is not genocidal, but he’s all too willing to abide by Nazi genocidal policies and employ Nazi methods to get what he wants. And what does he want? In the series, the Man in the High Castle is producing these films that show the Allies winning the war, “a different world, a better world,” as Juliana says (S1E2). These films are interpreted as a danger to the current world order (not made explicit why), but it is the Führer (still alive in the series) who is really obsessed with them. Kido’s efforts can thus be interpreted as done in the service of Japan, but is really of benefit, of primary interest, to the German Reich. Even if sovereign Japanese, then, Kido is portrayed as a delegate of the Reich—this despite the tensions between the two empires even more palpable in the series. This is part of the series’ larger point about how the Empire of Japan is no less fascist than Nazi Germany. In this regard, the statement, “There are no Jews in Japan, after all,” is particularly troubling. Japan, it would seem, in contrast to the novel’s “humanitarian considerations,” is not genocidal against Jews only because they don’t have to be. This raises the question, then: If not Jews, who? If fascism arises in another setting in which perhaps Jews are not the target (but perhaps they also are), who will be put in their place?

The series is able to raise this question because it refuses to whitewash Japanese brutality, thereby clarifying that fascism is not specific or limited to Nazi Germany. But does Dick really whitewash the Japanese (if so, like his depiction of women, this would be curious)? Why do the Japanese feel “nice” in the novel? This, I argue, is due to the way in which they are set in contrast to the Nazis, who are portrayed as extremely bad, in fact, as absolutely evil—precisely because white. In chapter 6, along with other high-ranking Imperial officials Tagomi is summoned to the Japanese Foreign Office for a briefing on the death of the Reich Chancellor (essentially the Führer, Hitler already dead). Speculating on possible replacements, the Foreign Office spokesman offers a “dry, slow recitation” of Nazi notables and their achievements (a scene of comparable horror is yet to be presented in the series, which is more focused on the Resistance), culminating in “Doctor Seyss-Inquart. Former Austrian Nazi, now in charge of Reich colonial areas, responsible for colonial policies. Possibly most hated man in Reich territory. Said to have instigated most if not all repressive measures dealing with conquered peoples. Worked with Rosenberg for ideological victories of most alarming grandiose type, such as attempt to sterilize entire Russian population remaining after close of hostilities. No facts for certain on this, but considered to be one of several responsible for decision to make holocaust of African continent thus creating genocide conditions for Negro population. Possibly closest in temperament to original Führer, A. Hitler” (99). At this point, Tagomi feels that he’s “going mad”: “I have to get out of here; I am having an attack. My body is throwing up things or spurting them out—I am dying” (99). When he recovers, he realizes, “There is evil! It’s actual like cement” (100). Seyss-Inquart may be the worst, but he is not the only one—Göring, Himmler, Goebbels, Heydrich and Schirach already having been described by the spokesman—his acts not the only hallmarks of Nazism. In fact, Tagomi missed what the spokesman said next: “The Home Islands take the view that Germany’s scheme to reduce the populations of Europe and Northern Asia to the status of slaves—plus murdering all intellectuals, bourgeois elements, patriotic youth and what not—has been an economic catastrophe. Only the formidable technological achievements of German science and industry have saved them. Miracle weapons, so to speak” (101).

(Correction on 2/3/2017: I suggested above that the series is not as horrifying as the novel and that race is not as palpable in it. Upon second viewing, I realized that the series does substantially allude to and in some cases directly depicts, even exaggerates, racial horrors characteristic of its world: the Holocaust, the enslavement of the whole African continent, the dropping of the atomic bomb on DC, the rounding up of Jews in Boston, in fact the expansion of the Nazi treatment of Jews by the Japanese in their treatment of Americans, etc. In addition, the first season of the series portrays Heydrich and in effect assigns to him the role of the novel’s Schirach. This is more historically accurate—in actual history, Heydrich was more central in the Nazi hierarchy and was seen as the model Nazi—handsome and fanatic—and is often attributed as the architect of the Holocaust [the role assigned to Schirach in the novel]. The series draws from this history, but revises it by portraying Heydrich, unlike in actual history not assassinated early in the war, pathetically, hardly a gentleman and less a true believer than merely scheming, power-hungry. This is a good move as it attributes to him the central role he played in history, but makes his emulation by the audience less likely.)

What is it that drove Tagomi mad about what he was hearing? What is it that he discerned about the sixth Nazi listed that crossed the threshold of his comprehension, tolerance, and cognitive dissonance, causing him to fall into mental and physical vertigo from which, after panic, it took some effort—“Think along reassuring lines. Recall order of world. What to draw on? […] Small form of recognizable world. […] The finite, finite world …” (99-100)—to recover? This, I argue, is evil itself, the actuality of evil, evil in the flesh: “There is evil! It’s actual like cement” (100). And what a horrific thing it is, evil, embodied in the person of Seyss-Inquart, who, based on race—racial discrimination is rampant in the novel, determining how one, and one’s race, dies but also what one is allowed to read—implements it accordingly—enslavement, sterilization, extermination—at the cost, despite the post-WWI context that brought Nazism to power, of economic catastrophe and for no reason other than race. The grasping of this that makes one go mad, that exceeds comprehension—the program to kill not only the other, but the other’s entire race, all trace of the Other, and all because of race—leads Tagomi to conclude, “It’s an ingredient in us. In the world. Poured over us, filtering into our bodies, minds, hearts, into the pavement itself” (100). This genocidal impulse, Tagomi thinks, is innate (“an ingredient”) in humans, in fact, in “the world,” in other living beings (e.g. beasts), but also in the inanimate (“the pavement itself”), in fact not only innate, but “poured over” (how much of it is there?), “filtering into our bodies, minds, hearts,” penetrating that which makes us human, that which constitutes the world. Genocide, moreover, is not only virtual, not only an impulse, does not stay within, but may, in fact, be poured into the pavement—the pavement not only a given thing in the world, but something created by man. That is, genocide may be actualized in what human beings do, like what the Nazis are doing in the novel, in which case it becomes “actual like cement,” i.e. evil in the flesh, the actualization of absolute evil.

Early in the novel, Frank discerns the same thing in a moment of horror: “The ancient cannibal near-man flourishing now, ruling the world once more. We spent a million years escaping him, […] and now he’s back. And not merely as the adversary … but as the master” (10). The near-man eating its own kind, or perhaps what is not yet or not quite man eating what evolves from it—in this iteration absolute evil is “ancient,” returning instead of advancing, thwarting escape, foreclosing movement by mastering, indeed cannibalizing, the Other, the new. Genocide is thus depicted as primitive, primal, the root of evil, evil at the root. Tagomi likewise projects absolute evil backward in time when, attacked in the office with co-conspirators while making plans to foil the Nazi plot to bomb Japan, he describes Nazi actions as “only five-thousand-year-old joint mind applicable[, hence something a contemporary like himself cannot understand,] German totalitarian society resembl[ing] some faulty form of life, worse than natural thing[,] worse in all its admixtures, its potpourri of pointlesness” (211), mixing this sense of an old—alt in German, by the way—fault that happened long ago, the fault that constitutes Nazism, with reference to “thug[s]” (210) “run[ning] amok like blond berserk beasts, unfit even to describe!” (209) (the depiction of amok as blond is one of the novel’s many racial reversals). The allusion becomes explicit later when, trying to recover from the attack at a park, Tagomi is passed by an American policeman who makes small talk and his response is that he was “interrupted by that white barbarian Neanderthal yank[, a …] subhuman” (244)—his attackers in the office in fact American, but the attack obviously orchestrated by Nazis (210)—something he quickly recognizes as “dreadful low-class jingoistic racist invectives” (244). Dick, in other words, inserts in Frank and Tagomi’s horrified response to Nazism the suspicion that the genocidal impulse is Neanderthal, an attribution that, ironically, is itself racist (Neanderthals, for example, are stereotyped as cannibals; there is, however, no substantial evidence that shows that cannibalism is unique or limited to Neanderthals); like Nazis, Frank and Tagomi are, after all, human. I would argue, however, that what is articulated in a racist way has a kernel of truth, namely, the identification of absolute evil as alt, which, however, does not need to be Neanderthal. That is, what Frank and Tagomi ultimately discern is the primal evil of genocide, to which, in fear, they respond with racism, precisely what the Nazis reveal is underpinned by the genocidal impulse, the very evil that they discern.

Needless to say, Frank and Tagomi’s racism is not the same as Nazism, which can also be interpreted as a response, i.e. to post-WWI economic crisis and political paralysis, but which Dick, in contrast, posits (e.g. through Seyss-Inquart) as absolute evil. In this regard, it is important to note that what leads Frank to the thought of the alt is reflection on Nazi colonization of space, which brings him to previous Nazi colonial adventurism, specifically, to Nazi experimentation in Africa. “The first technicians!” Frank describes the Nazis. “Prehistoric man in a sterile white lab coat in some Berlin university lab, experimenting with uses to which other people’s skull, skin, ears, fat could be put to. Ja, Herr Doktor. A new use for the big toe; see, one can adapt the joint for a quick-acting cigarette lighter mechanism. Now, if only Herr Krupp can produce it in quantity” (10). The Nazis, it can be inferred, chose Africa as the site for this experiment based on race; the African holocaust is thus an actualization of absolute evil. It is an actualization, however, that is also a departure. This second holocaust projected in the novel as something the Nazis would have undoubtedly done had they won WWII is, of course, evil (!), rooted in absolute evil (the actualization of the genocidal impulse), and derived from primitive human programming (the cannibalistic instinct against the Other), but it is evil that has gained rationale, if auxiliary, namely, the economic logic of putting to use, in fact, of mass production, of industry. This economic evil, I would argue, is absolutely evil, but because of its reason, i.e. because it has some reason, if perverted, immoral, and incomprehensible, it is a degree of rather than absolute evil itself. Absolute evil, after all, as Tagomi traumatically grasps, is evil that has no reason, is defined by no other factor, in fact, gets rid of all and has no Other. That acts absolutely evil (e.g. the African holocaust) are rooted in absolute evil to different degrees, I argue, sheds light on why Tagomi found Nazi genocide—for sure something he already knew about—maddening, and why when he recovered he generalized it. When he speaks of “us,” humanity, in fact “the world” itself, as evil, could it be that Tagomi specifically means the Japanese, in fact himself as a high-level Imperial bureaucrat?

This, I argue, is due to Japan, like Germany, being not only a victor of the war, but an empire, Frank’s discernment of the alt likewise occurring while thinking about colonization and with Seyss-Inquart, depicted as the worst, in charge of colonial policies. This raises the question of the extent to which colonization—ruling over a territory of subjugated, racialized others—is evil, of how many degrees removed it is, and what distinguishes it, from the absolute evil of genocide pure and simple. Moreover, that it has different degrees directs attention to the complicity of the Imperial Japanese in absolute evil, rendered explicit in the series through the brutality of the Kempeitai and explored subtly in the novel through Tagomi’s thoughts despite his disavowing articulation of “humanitarian considerations.” The degrees also shed light on the racism of the response to Nazism. Kido’s description of Zyklon D makes the Japanese police appear civilized in the series, but this chemical could have been taken from the Nazis, who are more technologically advanced, hence no necessary distinction is posited. In the novel, however, the Japanese are unambiguously portrayed as civilized overlords, and not just because of their refusal to massacre Jews or use gas ovens. Dick asserts the “Japanese fitness to rule” through an encounter with a colonized American and a Japanese civilian of high prestige, in which the American thinks: “This was how the Japanese ruled, not crudely but with subtlety, ingenuity, timeless cunning. […] We’re barbarians compared to them […]. We’re no more than boobs against such pitiless reasoning. […] He got me to say it for him. And, as final irony, he regretted my utterance. […] He’s broken me. […] Humiliated me and my race. And I’m helpless. There’s no avenging this; we are defeated and our defeats are like this, so tenuous, so delicate, that we’re hardly able to perceive them. In fact, we have to rise a notch in our evolution to know it ever happened” (192). That the Japanese are subtle, cunning, reasoning—i.e. fit to rule—does this make their colonization not evil? That is, is civilization or evolution mutually exclusive with absolute evil? That anti-Neanderthalism is depicted as racist disallows this conclusion. Rather, while projecting absolute evil backward in time, Dick, I argue, simultaneously questions what has moved on—i.e. not only near-man, but man itself, in fact, us, the world—as rooted in absolute evil, if to a different degree. This is not to say that all things so rooted are actually evil, which would depend on one’s relation to the genocidal impulse (again, not just Neanderthal, but also human). Historically, the Nazis tried their best to approximate its ideal—as the Foreign Office spokesman points out, through racism and technology, i.e. regression and civilization; in the novel, they are actively actualizing it. This designates Nazism as the degree zero of absolute evil.

More than the dystopia of an alternate history, human rootedness in absolute evil is what makes the novel haunting—the simplicity of an “ideal world,” in contrast, precisely what the Nazis tried to put in place, ironically resulting in “obscure admixtures” (260). Obviously, however, the degrees of difference—degrees of freedom?—make a difference, this, I argue, what not only makes the Japanese seem “nice” in the novel, but what allows Tagomi to discern the return of absolute evil to one of its perpetrators, even if dominant. As he tells a co-conspirator in the continuation of the conversation above, “The Jews […] were described always by the Nazis as Asian and non-white. Sir, the implication was never lost on personages in Japan, even among the War Cabinet” (76). Similarly, its degrees that highlight both difference from and rootedness in absolute evil explain the urgency of The Man in the High Castle in our time. The back cover of the book roots the alternate history of the novel as a result of how “some twenty years earlier the United States lost a war—and is now occupied by Nazi Germany and Japan.” With the election of Donald Trump, the irony is that in actual history, “the United States [won] a war [against] and is now [threatened to be governed] by [neofascists] and [ethno-nationalists],” a part of the broader disavowal of democracy and rise of neofascism in the world dominated by the US, the “multicultural” “land of the free.” How to explain this? The trailer for the second season of the series, which starts streaming today, begins with Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President”—with President, however, changed to Führer, sung for Hitler rather than JFK. What a disturbing image this is, unraveling not only libidinal investment in an American icon—how familiar this song is, how marked in the American psyche, i.e. how iconically American—but the continuum between US liberalism (JFK commonly seen as the epitome of the liberal order) and Nazi fascism. A song otherwise celebrated becomes through a dystopian, alternate history revelatory not only of the subject’s investment in power (singing for the leader) and of power in its subjects (being sung to, and by Marilyn) but, eerily, of how this power, and the relation between ruler and subject, is a cause for concern, exaggerated in the series as Marilyn sings for the Führer, but already at work in the celebration of liberalism.


Indeed, the similarities between fascism and liberalism, more precisely, between Greater Nazi Germany (alternate) and America after New Deal Liberalism (actual), is one of the central themes of the series. While resonance should be highlighted, however, the specificity of fascism should not be lost sight of—i.e. liberalism should not be equated with fascism—especially given the urgent and, I argue, new threat of neofascism, as the election of Trump to the US Presidency should indicate. In the novel, there is a novel that itself presents an alternate history, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy written by the Man in the High Castle. Reading it, the Italian fascist Joe (undercover Nazi in the novel and the series) argues that had the Allies won, the world would essentially be the same, if in reverse: the British would have “detention preserves” (169) in a world ruled by “Anglo-Saxon plutocrats” with, unlike in The Grasshopper, “no social reform, no welfare public works plans” (170). Juliana responds to this by thinking, “Spoken like a devout fascist” (170). Joe is so “devout” to fascism, so imbued with its tenets, that he cannot perceive the specificity of the Liberal Anglo-Saxon order alternate to the world of the novel. In these ominous times of our actual history, neoliberalism (an order, it should be noted, that has gone beyond the liberalism of JFK’s day) penetrates our world so thoroughly that it lends us prone to a similar danger, even when we’re resisting it. In “The Supermanagerial Reich,” critical theorists Ajay Singh Chaudhary and Raphaële Chappe delineate the defining features of neoliberalism and fascism, in the process pointing out, I argue, not, given their similarities—notably a certain privatization of the state through supermanager governance—that they’re the same, but that they’re fundamentally different—“Nazism gave capitalism a partially reluctant embrace [but is ultimately aimed at white supremacy … whereas] neoliberalism […] explicitly seeks the extension and protection of capitalism at all costs.” This then allows them to explain neofascism as a paradoxical response to how “we have already been living in a form of deeply destructive authoritarian liberalism for nearly four decades now,” i.e. to “the rolling slow-motion horror that has been neoliberalism.” Expanding on this reading, I would argue that Trump’s win functions like an 11/9, that is, a return of the colonized, oppressed, or repressed to empire—except in reverse, the opposite of 9/11, i.e. from inside, by its traditionally privileged subjects.

In contrast to how Chaudhary and Chappe end their analysis, however, I would argue that this militant return, pushback, or “whitelash” that is neofascism is, in its nature, its degree of absolute evil, more dangerous than its cause, even if neoliberalism is in important ways also fascist. The purpose of this is not to exceptionalize, but to avoid normalizing Trump. In a previous post, I argued that a Trump vote is a white vote, not that being white means that one would vote for Trump, but that Trump votes are mostly (90%) white, white voters making Trump’s victory possible, whites voting for Trump because they’re white. This is perhaps the logical outcome of the way in which Trump ran on fascist appeals—the narrative of community decline, the desire to “make America [straight white male] again,” the assurance that he and he alone can fix all of America’s problems … In other words, in his campaign, Trump simulated the conditions—real and imagined—that brought Nazism to power, the inclinations of a strongman who would eliminate all opposition—in the novel, the “murdering [of] all intellectuals, bourgeois elements, patriotic youth and what not”; while Nazi administration, as Chaudhary and Chappe argue, is characterized by diffuse sovereignty, this became possible only after the Nazis eliminated all opposition that could threaten them, including in the halls of power, as in the “night of long knives”—and the leader’s mystical union with the people through explicit statements that at times incited violence and a slogan that barely concealed its genocidal impulse: if a Trump vote is a white vote, is it not also a vote, if secret, to get rid of people of color? Neoliberalism may, indeed, be said to be a degree, in fact to incite the return, of absolute evil, but Trump deliberately simulated its degree zero—the alt—if differently, if not exactly—neo­—and the US electorate not only accepted but actively sanctioned it by voting him into office: neofascism. With Trump’s impending ascent to the most powerful political office in the world, especially given the US stockpile of most of the world’s weapons and the trend toward an imperial presidency, our alarm bells should be ringing—hoping that we’re wrong (in which case we would be facing an extreme neoliberalism, which doesn’t bode well either), but vigilant for if we’re not (which would be much worse). The second time that he encountered the alt, Tagomi found himself faced with the question, “Evil, […] are we to assist it in gaining power, in order to save our lives? Is that the paradox of our earthly situation?” (200), and he is a high-level bureaucrat of an empire that, like the actualization of absolute evil, won—at least, as Juliana says in the series upon seeing the film of The Grasshopper, “That’s what they told us” (S1E1).


Chaudhary, Ajay Singh and Raphaële Chappe. “The Supermanagerial Reich.” Los Angeles Review of Books, 7 Nov. 2016, Accessed 16 Dec. 2016.

Dick, Philip K. The Man in the High Castle. 1st Mariner Books ed. Boston: Mariner Books, 2011. Print.

Spotnitz, Frank, creator. The Man in the High Castle. Amazon Studios, 2015.

“The Man in the High Castle Season 2 – Official Trailer.” Youtube, uploaded by Amazon Video, 8 Oct. 2016,


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