criticism, political economy, politics

Degrees of Absolute Evil

dick-the-man-in-the-high-castle

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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politics

Defense and Resistance

On election day, I tweeted #breakthewall, which turned out all too optimistic, America choosing instead to reinforce its defenses warranted in important ways (given the economic convulsions wrought by globalization and automation) but ultimately alarming (resistance to the system culturally expressed through reactionary nostalgia—“make America great again”—at its limit white supremacy, but which is not just about race, constituting, rather, a powerless attempt to get back at power through simple solutions, including race, by those who feel like “strangers in their own land”). When the realization dawned on me that this was actually happening as I listened to the news in between bouts of writing, I wrote, We’re going to have to live through this for decades to come, as if the campaign wasn’t bad enough: explicit white supremacy, sexual assault, tax evasion, worker stiffing, the narcissistic cult of personality, vicious and resentful law and order, the undoing of justice in the Supreme Court, schadenfreude as political discourse, the authoritarian desecration of democracy—Trump promising to buttress the wall (ironically enough the “middle” rather than the “establishment”) that proclaims itself as America.

I had to go to work the next day. Even though I couldn’t sleep the night before and didn’t want to get out of bed the morning after, I forced myself to follow my routine, thinking that this was precisely the moment in which I should be with other people. True enough, I had good conversations at the office (not to mention texts, calls, and emails from family and friends), if cloaked (for me at least) by this sense that apocalypse had just happened, and threatens to come soon. I had to teach at the end of the day, and I was worried about what I would say, if I should say anything, and how I would be … With most students overly quiet as if containing something within themselves and at least one so visibly distraught, I decided I would address what had happened before anything else. It was really hard to talk, to say something coherent, especially with a student (one of the smartest in the class) smiling mockingly, as though shaking his head and asking, What’s the relevance of all this?, Aren’t you blowing this out of proportion?, and I hadn’t cried yet so was worried that I would, right there, in front of the class, but after repeating the same phrase quite a bit (“Sad day, dark day …”), I ended up introducing the term “negative emulation” (don’t know where it came from): If you see them up there, doing something bad, something you don’t agree with, something you think shouldn’t be, or maybe you agree in which case this doesn’t apply to you, but if you don’t, then do the exact opposite. If only at the level of personal interactions, your immediate environment, foster a world different from that which they want to recreate. Try to be kinder, more open, genuinely interested in those who are different. Do something different, if only in your local world. Be different.—Hopelessly naïve, I know, but I’d prefer hopelessly naïve or even double-faced over explicitly injurious any day.

As the initial shock starts to wane, I find myself thinking about what’s next. The simultaneous protesting (the electoral college, election conditions, media coverage, systemic rigging by the establishment blowing up on itself, the reactionary ideology that may claim to but, despite post-election demonstrations of crossing across the aisle to uphold the so-called “peaceful transition of power,” is not intended to represent all or, for that matter, “America”: #notmypresident) and acceptance of loss (when we can least afford it, given global warming, race and gender relations, the new Gilded Age, etc.) may lead, especially since it’s “painful, and will be for a long time” (given the legislative damage it will inflict, the cultural reversal it promises, the symbolic injury of the campaign legitimated by the vote), to long-term strategizing beyond electoral politics (in which, yet again maybe I’m being naïve, the humanities can be a focal point, especially in the age of fact resistance) and in electoral politics, which, however, requires that the Democratic Party (the one upended by Trump, after all, registered Democrats crossing over to vote for him) and, more broadly, the left take a long, hard look at itself (even if Clinton won, despite their behavior—the stubborn determination to make Obama fail, the obstructionism, the shutting down of the government, re-districting—the Republicans still won everything: the Senate, the House, Governor’s Mansions, soon the Supreme Court; and they did so under the magnification of the worst, brinksmanship already their order of the day; there remains, of course, the question: would the magnification work with, be had by, or upend the worst?), its tendencies (opportunistic corporatism and progressive marginalization; idealistic self-fragmentation and cynical conflation of all liberalisms), and a way forward (which necessitates, I argue, against defense, polarization and [fact] resistance, that we form the Resistance [as social movement]).

[Update on 11/20/2016]

After the election (11/9 like 9/11?), everything feels different. One of the ways in which this manifests for me is how I can’t seem to brush off the question, Does white mean white supremacist? (Of course it does not, it can’t be, but after the election, it’s harder to tolerate its truth.) It seems to me that the only way this can not be true—and it cannot be—is for those who are identified as white to fight white supremacy. Saying that “I’m not racist” or “No, white supremacy is just a fringe tendency” or “It’s just the ‘culture’ where I belong” or “It’s just a preference” is too easy—racism more insidious when it’s disavowed, racism more able to do its work through a bearer unaware. And “white” is not just an identification of those who are identified as white, white supremacy an investment not only of whites, direct or indirect. In this way, the election calls on all of us to consciously fight white supremacy. This does not necessarily mean fighting whites, who have fought supremacy in the past—but never by themselves. Likewise, this does not mean that racism will not unconsciously outwit us. However, vigilant awareness (which does not have to be paranoid suspicion) of our own complicity may be our best safeguard against the tide that, through simplicity, has already given white supremacy a major victory.

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criticism

The Courage and Limits of Caitlyn Jenner

Caitlyn Jenner Vanity Fair

I must admit that when Bruce Jenner first came out as Caitlyn on the cover of Vanity Fair (7/2015; see full article), I took notice but didn’t think of the act as particularly significant. In the context of the other news of the day—the police killings of unarmed black civilians, the enduring recession, currently coming to a head in the Greek debt crisis—my gut instinct was to criticize the moneyed and celebrity position from which Caitlyn is coming. My first thoughts went something like: of course she can afford to do that, unlike others who might feel the same way, indeed others who have more urgent medical concerns, but do not have the resources of the top 1%; of course she can think about being “who she really is” rather than settling with a given he can’t change, indeed can’t even think about, given more grounded preoccupations, say, with daily material needs; of course she would have a commodified response to a crisis revolving around gender felt as personal, given his own commodification as an Olympic athlete and American hero.

Jenner’s acceptance of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at ESPY (see clip) dispelled these reservations. This award was a necessary follow-up to the Vanity Fair cover as it situated Jenner in context, both where he’s coming from and where she plans to go, in the process driving home the significance of Caitlyn, all this taking place in an especially pertinent setting. Yes, there are other problems that do need our attention, but those pertaining to gender and sexuality, as highlighted in this case by a sports event, are not to be ignored. The harrowing statistics of trans violence in this country alone highlight the political urgency of trans justice, which Jenner claims was a motivation for her to come out. The same goes for arguments that question whether Jenner, and not some other athlete who has gone through more significant hardship, deserves the award (see brief profile of Arthur Ashe). There are, indeed, other minorities who are also oppressed, perhaps more than the subjects that Caitlyn represents, certainly more than Jenner herself, but pointing this out is less an argument against giving Caitlyn a public platform than an argument for devising more ways to grant recognition. This is so especially since subjective recognition, like struggle itself, is not exclusive, but shared and contagious. As such, the complaint, “What about X? Don’t they deserve it more?” (contrast to: “Our fellows won something they needed!”), is counterproductive. Among other things, it resentfully and unwittingly participates in the divide-and-conquer strategy by which the dominant keeps the oppressed, well, oppressed.

As for Jenner’s privilege and celebrity, first, when it comes down to it, it means nothing; and secondly, it is, in fact, an advantage, and not only for Jenner. Everyone who is privileged in some way (thanks to background, talent, looks, etc.) knows that such privilege proves cheap in the face of an attribute that could be exploited as a weakness. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick points out in Epistemology of the Closet, there is always a closet in which one finds oneself in, no matter how out one thinks him/herself to be, no matter how open the environment. This is because you can be respected for something in which you are considered “good” or “strong,” and lose all that respect because you’re gay, or be respected only despite being black, Hispanic, or Asian, or be excluded and ridiculed for not being one of the boys. At the same time, Jenner does have privilege, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, because she is privileged, Jenner has the resources with which to fight, and, it must be noted, for a group of people deemed and treated as the lowest of the low, including in the gay community. Privilege buys (some) power (in some contexts), and it is the use to which power is put that is to be judged, not privilege by itself.

In fact, Jenner’s performance of the ex-“American hero” now identifying as and standing up for gender outcasts—already ironic—ironically makes him more critical than the mainstream LGBTQ movement. After all, the current thrust of the gay mainstream is heavily weighted toward marriage and the “proper” “type” of gay, undoubtedly a compelling factor leading to its recent victories, its acceptance in the mainstream. The price of this has been the disavowal of the less proper type of queers, notably trans, despite the fact that it was trans activists in Stonewall that gave birth to the modern LGBTQ movement. Similarly, of course ESPN has a vested commercial interest in presenting Jenner the award and that such presentation involves her commodification, but why single out a transgender woman, and not the other athletes, heteronormative or not, as the object of televised exploitation? And so what if Jenner is commodified as she is publicly recognized? Does commodification necessarily blunt the critical force of her public performance? In fact, doesn’t commodification, given its speed, its shock or seduction value, its mass dissemination, propel Jenner’s performance? In a world where capitalism attempts to penetrate virtually everything, does pointing out that something is entangled really amount to a critique? More importantly, does entanglement necessarily foreclose critique of that to which one is entangled and, it must not be forgotten, of the other operative axes of power that may or may not be aligned with capitalism, say, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and patriotism?

These attempts, ostensibly well-meaning, to dismiss or minimize the significance of Caitlyn Jenner miss something crucial about her. Criticisms from the right make up a reactionary backlash (what else is new?) against the way in which Caitlyn has deconstructed the American hero, proving him not only to be unknown (as expressed by Caitlyn’s constant remark, “Before this, nobody really knew me”), perhaps unknowable, because hollow—a mere ideal, a fantasy—but, indeed, as the opposite of what he’s thought to be, i.e. as deviant, wretched, monstrous, as someone undesirable and unworthy of admiration, at least not in the conventional sense, in other words, as queer. These reactionary criticisms, in other words, root from a nostalgia for something that’s not there but is believed in, an anchor of identity that Bruce used to be, but which Caitlyn has shattered. Whereas these nostalgic criticisms do everything they can to erase what Caitlyn has revealed, more sympathetic criticisms, including those coming from the fellow oppressed, miss what it was that Caitlyn showed the world. For in courageously standing up there to flamboyantly parade her gender for all the world to see, what Caitlyn Jenner has showed, in these times of enduring racial persecution, unending economic recession, and the institutionalization of gay marriage, is the centrality of sexuality itself, not against but along with other axes of struggle.

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