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).

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history, political economy

(Non-)Independence and the Imperial Rights of Colonials

(This post first came out in Common Rhetoric in 7/2014.)

Trumbull - Declaration of Independence (1819)

(John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence [1819])

There is not one, but (at least) two Fourth of Julys. July 4, 1776: Thirteen colonies declare Independence from the British Crown, constituting the United States of America (“united” in original document). What are the grounds for this declaration? First, what did it do? The Declaration absolves the colonies from all allegiance to the British Crown, dissolving all political connection between the colonies and the State of Great Britain, thereby constituting free and independent States, separate and equal to Great Britain, mutually pledged and united with each other. Why did the colonies do this? The Declaration lists the British King’s history of repeated injuries and usurpations, oppressions that have been petitioned by the colonies, only to be answered not by redress but by repeated injury, part and parcel of the British Crown’s establishment of an absolute Tyranny over the colonies (interchangeable with “States” in the document). What gives the colonies—declaring themselves as States—the right to do this? The principle: All men are created equal, endowed with unalienable rights secured through the institution of government, which the People have a Right and duty to alter and abolish should government become destructive of this end, which manifests in abuses and usurpations.

July 4, 1946: U.S. President Harry S. Truman grants recognition to the Philippines, hitherto an American colony, as a separate and self-governing nation, under the control of the government instituted by the people, duly prepared by Americans to assume this obligation. The terms of this recognition of independence are laid down in the Treaty of Manila (Treaty of General Relations) of 1946. Is the Fourth of July, then, a double celebration, the celebration of the Independence of two States, of the colonized and the colonizer? That is, is American Independence also Filipino Independence, tying the fate of two peoples as intricate, inextricable? American and Philippine independence—are these two Fourth of Julys the same? What makes them different, in fact, fundamentally opposite? The Philippines had already declared its Independence on June 12, 1898, in a war the Philippines waged against Spain, a previous colonizer. The U.S., an ally of the Philippines due to the fact that it was itself in conflict with Spain over Cuba, refused, however, to recognize this Declaration uncannily similar to its own (colony against the empire), negotiating instead with Spain the Treaty of Paris of December 1898, which ceded the Philippines and other Spanish colonies to the U.S. This led to the long, bloody, and bitter armed conflict between the U.S. and Filipino revolutionaries known as the Philippine Insurrection or the Philippine-American War (1899-1902/1913) and, eventually, the U.S. colonization of the Philippines. Only 48 years later, in 1946, did the U.S. finally recognize the independence of the Philippines with a treaty that nonetheless ensured continued postcolonial American control of the Philippines on the same day that the founding fathers, using the tenets of democracy, declared themselves free.

Most of this history, including the Philippine-American War that resulted in the death of 34,000 to 220,000 Filipinos, is forgotten or minimized in the official narratives, hidden in the self-image of the first Fourth of July. If independence is not declared but granted, and not by the self, in which the colonizer declares the form of this independence in the time that it sets, and puts things in place to ensure postcolonial control, is it Independence? If Independence derives its legitimation from the principle of democracy, but then refuses to recognize the very same Independence of a colored people, thereby betraying that, perhaps, its basis was not democracy after all, is it Independence? If independence is recognized, but not on the self-proclaimed date of the state becoming independent (June 12), but on the date of the colonizer’s own Independence (July 4) serving to erase the former and one’s own self-declaration and to engrave on this “independent” state the mark of the colonizer, to imprint on Philippine independence the shadow of American colonization, what is Independence?

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political economy

Enclosure, Reversal, Restoration

(An earlier version of this post came out in Common Rhetoric in 6/2014.)

In a collection of essays on the commons called Stop, Thief! (2014), historian Peter Linebaugh begins by citing an anonymous English poem. It goes:

The law locks up the man or woman

Who steals the goose from off the common,

But lets the greater villain loose

Who steals the common from the goose.

How is this quatrain potentially revolutionary, but also problematic? What does it point to? What is it doing? The poem performs the classic Marxist move of demystification, even though its composer may not have self-identified as Marxist. First, what is happening, at least apparently? “The man or woman […] steals the goose”—a criminal act justly punished by “the law” that “locks up” this man or woman. This is what it looks like. This is what is seen. As the chant goes on, however, something else takes place: a call for reversal that, as hinted at, is more just than the law owing to the fact that the relation was reversed to begin with; as such, only a subsequent reversal, the one invoked by the last two lines, would set things right.

It looked as though the unqualified “man or woman,” i.e. the common man or woman, was stealing goose from off the common, that this man or woman was taking what’s not his, what she has no right to, from “the common” protected by the law. But this is contradictory: How can the common be designated by the law? How can the common be guarded by the law? The common is prior to the law, and, in many ways, is the opposite of the law. In fact, this contradictory enclosure of the common by the law is the act of the “greater villain” or, more precisely, the greater and more villainous act that “steals the common from the goose,” an act sanctioned precisely because it is done by means of the law.

As it turns out, it is not the man or woman who steals, but the greater villain behind the law, through the law. It is not the common who steals the goose from off the common, but the law that steals the common from the goose. What looked like the primary theft of the goose turns out to be secondary to the primal theft of the common, rendering the subsequent theft just, the truly just act that is the only thing that can set right the original and greater theft. As the common is stolen from the goose, it looks as though the man or woman is stealing the goose from off the common when, in fact, the goose is merely recovering the goose (nothing to do with goods), putting herself back in the common, in which he belongs. At the same time, this process, the poem suggests, involves difficulty and incommensurability. Something is irreparably lost in the original theft that cannot be recovered, as the common has become goose, dupe, fool, which, it seems, is the subjectivity given to man or woman in the theft of the common, and which s/he has to take in taking back the common.

What the quatrain points to, then, is the enclosure of the commons, done legally but unjustly through the expropriation of the common and the containment and disempowerment of the commoner, what in the neoliberal phase of capitalism, as Linebaugh points out, takes the form of privatization and incarceration. The quatrain likewise directs attention to duplicity, that is, the doubleness that marks every rhetorical move, in this case criminal, namely: (1). the act itself (theft); and (2). the discourse (law) that, by imposing the perpetrator’s point of view (position, presuppositions, and frame) and reversing the original relation, justifies the act; in the law’s own terms, the crime and the cover-up. What does this imply? What solution to the injustice and its legitimation is proposed by the quatrain, if only indirectly? In positing the primal theft as a duplicitous move, the quatrain implies that dupes can only and must reverse enclosure to restore the commons.

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