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Zunguzungu
Zunguzungu
By Aaron Bady
Anyone claiming to be an expert is selling something. I brandish my ignorance like a crucifix at vampires.
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Life Is Too Much Like Real Life

life-pic

Ostensibly set in the present day, Daniel Espinosa’s Life didn’t, at first, feel much like any “present day” that I recognize. Before the main events of the movie begin—before it becomes an Alien-style monster-on-the-space-station movie—we see a basically united and well-balanced humanity, exemplified by a happy family of American, British, Russian, and Chinese astronauts, male and female. As the crew advances boldly into the unknown, struggling to bring to life a long dormant fragment of a Martian life-form, we see an earth apparently populated by dreamers and idealists who follow along with the wonder and awe of a child dreaming of the stars. It’s what Star Trek occasionally fashioned itself as being, minus all the magic technology and military hierarchy, the best of humanity: social, empathic, curious.

It’s mostly gestural, of course; there are no info-dumps to tell us that we are in a space-utopian version of real life. Indeed, there are a handful of careful indications that we aren’t. The carnage and destruction of the Syrian civil war is explicitly mentioned, for example: Jake Gyllenhaal’s soulful doctor has set a record for days in space because, as he explains, what he has seen on earth sickens him. Space is clean, free, and peaceful; there is no violence. Until the main events of the movie begin, he seems to have a point. In space, so much that composes our “present day” is glaringly absent. Space does not seem to be the terrain for corporatist struggle or an international arms race; there’s no trace of any Elon Musk “Billionaires to the Stars”-type project, nor does the military industrial complex make any appearance. Instead, we see the present day that a liberal baby boomer might have imagined it would become, perhaps, had the decades since Star Trek: The Next Generation went off the air gone differently.

And then everything changes with a really bad handshake.

The alien in this movie is not Trumpnot exactly–but as you watch our team of hyper-educated, cosmopolitan, and multiracial liberals get routed by this creature—as their jovial teamwork and careful division of labor and skills is utterly outmatched by single-minded entity whose every cell carries out every function—it’s hard not to see a certain parallel with how capitalism is killing and eating liberalism. Our heroes spend most of the movie being completely at a loss as to how to combat the thing, building walls and hiding—at one point, they literally lock the doors, hide in a room, and wait for it to go away—and never coming close to developing a real plan. That they have no weapons with which to fight it—why bring weapons into space?—is part of their problem; they are fragile human bodies, susceptible to damage and death, and it is fast, powerful, and hungry, so it kills them off, one by one. Another problem is that human society operates through specialization, and as the creature kills different parts of the crew, it deprives the whole of that person’s expertise. When they lose the space-walker, the commander must do the space walking, such that when they lose the commander, that function, in turn, devolves onto others less skilled at it. At each turn, distributing these functions makes them vulnerable, and we see the creature attack that vulnerability, tearing the whole apart, piece by piece.

The creature, by contrast, has every function combined in every part of it: we are told, early on, that each cell contains brain, muscle, and sensory functions (and presumably digestion). After they bring the thing to life with glucose, it spends the rest of the movie eating human beings for more glucose; it lives by eating other forms of life. What it doesn’t seem to have, however, is a reproductive system. It never makes another version of itself; it only eats and grows. In this sense, if Life is an Alien knockoff—and it is—then the interesting difference is that this monster is totally asexual: evacuated of all the rich phantasmagoria of reproductive nightmares that made Ridley Scott’s film so iconic, this creature just eats and grows, eats and grows, eats and grows.

What do you do to fight such a thing? In retrospect, it doesn’t seem like there was much. The only answer our heroes come up with is to use its greed against it; the only plan that works, even a little, is to offer it something to eat and then anticipate that it will immediately eat it, which it does, every time. (Spoiler Alert: this plan doesn’t work very well.) But they figure this out much too late. And everything they do until that point gets used against them, by a creature who turns out to be nothing other than the predatory negation of whatever it is they are. In this sense, the movie is a parable for unsustainable capitalism, for a mode of life that strip mines the world for what it can eat (and grow) and which freely becomes whatever it needs to be in order to keep eating; having no identity of its own, it has nothing you can kill, and being killed is a function that has been devolved onto the living. Meanwhile, those who have been living in denial about all the killing that we already are–we retreat to fantasies of space-utopia while life is snuffed out on earth–are in no position to do anything.

So, yeah, a pretty precise encapsulation of the present day, chillingly familiar. By the end of the movie, we can deduce what must have happened to Mars: the creature simply ate everything and then starved to death. This is what happens to the endless drive for growth: because the creature doesn’t reproduce, socialize, or seek to sustain itself—because it simply eats and grows, and because it does nothing else—human society cannot compete, and won’t. When you extend a hand to it, in friendship, it takes your hand, and eats it.

 

 

My Soul Has Known Rivers… of Beer!

The right-wing backlash against this Budweiser commercial is the best praise you can give it, like when Fox News described “No Fascist US” as “anti-Trump graffiti.” The ad is a ludicrous load of ideology, but if it makes Trumpsters angry, then, frankly, it has already exhausted the revolutionary potential of a Super Bowl beer commercial. That Budweiser has denied any political intent (“There’s really no correlation with anything else that’s happening in the country”) is the icing on the cake; it’s corporate PR, but it’s also, accidentally, a hilarious bit of gaslighting, droll trollery.

“Correlation” is a carefully chosen word, a synonym for “not causation.” But context is not optional and there is no such thing as coincidence in film. As any good communist film theorist knows, the true kernel of film is the cut—the place where the decision to edit turns the jump from one thing to another into a conjunction, a relationship, an argument, and a story—and so the “cut” between what’s happening in the country and almost any bit of text we might come across is what makes “No Fascist US” into anti-Trump graffiti, and what makes this almost offensively inoffensive story about white immigration into an anti-Trump message. If a film director cuts from a daisy to a mushroom cloud, that cut tells a story about the relationship between those two things. In the reality show that America now is, to cut from Trump’s Muslim ban to a Budweiser commercial is to place the two in relation, and this is what this commercial has done.

Anyway, the commercial: over the course of a tightly-compressed one-minute montage, we see a grim-faced white man immigrate to America. We see his ocean-going vessel buffeted by waves and, on shore, we see him pushed and shoved and told he isn’t wanted; we see him exchange glances with a black man as they ride a steam-boat into the future—a moment of camaraderie, recognition, the natural solidarity of the oppressed outsider, a sly Huckleberry Finn reference—and though the steamboat catches fire and burns, he continues on, undaunted, to the promised land, St. Louis. There he shows the little book he’s been sketching in to a man who buys him a beer in a bar—and, hilariously, the genius beer he’s crafted seems mainly to consist of a bottle design, which is actually very apt, since Budweiser is the solution to a chemistry problem (how to get the minimum acceptable beer flavor out of the cheapest and minimum ingredients) plus good marketing—and out of it, a historic partnership is born: Anheuser-Fucking-Busch.

No politics here! Unlike, say, the 84 Lumber ad that Fox censored for its politics:

84-lumber

As Soviet film theorists figured out—when they were trying to reverse-engineer Hollywood’s incredibly successful capitalist propaganda machine—the trick was (among other things) to hide the ideology in the gaps, implied, to make sure it didn’t feel like propaganda (which the 84 Lumber ad obviously does). If you know you are being made to feel, you will resist; ideology is transmitted when you feel more than you know. The 84 Lumber ad is completely and obviously on the nose; it is so obviously about the wall that, when you say it, gets audibly capitalized and proper-nouned as The Wall.

But let us cut from Lumber 84 to Budweiser: why does an “ad” about Mexican immigrants scan as political, while the Budweiser commercial has plausible deniability, and can pretend to be just the meet-cute origin story of a brand’s patriarchal bros? Busch actually came with money, married Anheuser’s daughter, and used his inheritance to get into the beer business, but while that compression doesn’t scan as ideological, the ideology is exactly what was cut: beer as a marker of immigrant dissolution—a German and Irish lack of good protestant work ethic, for example—and the ethnic separatism that would make a pair of Germans in St. Louis more likely to form a business partnership with each other (and cement it with family ties) than with anyone else. And because there are no brown people on screen, it can’t be about politics, can it? (The phrase “You don’t look like you’re from around here” is where we know that this commercial is not really about what it’s about: he does look like he’s from around there after all, being white).

The core of the commercial, for me, is the series of cuts that place a white immigrant from Germany in relationship to a black man in St. Louis, in 1857, a few years before the civil war.

yo-what-up
“Man, America certainly is a land of opportunity, isn’t it?”
all-lives-matter
“Damn straight. And all lives matter.”

 

A black man on a steam boat in 1857, in the south, would either be enslaved or living in the shadow of racialized slavery. That little moment of mutual recognition—“I see that you too have a dream to succeed in America, this land of opportunity”—is pretty implausible, except insofar as we are retconning America as “A Land of Immigrants.” But the brief appearance of this black man has a function in this American story (read your Leslie Fiedler): as a mirror and a double for the real protagonist, the white man. In this story, the white man steals his identity, not his labor, but still remains white: so stoic and intent and serious and hard-working that he scans as the good immigrant, the kind of outsider we want. We don’t want Lumber 84’s woman and child, after all—we don’t want the prospect of non-white reproduction—we want white men with plans and ambitions, intellectual property that America can brew and drink. We don’t want those who were brought here on different kinds of boats. We definitely don’t want to think about what it meant to be white in St. Louis in 1857; we—a specifically white “we”—wants to imagine that our own white ancestors once occupied exactly the same role as today’s immigrants, and that they met the jeers and physical violence with stoic determination, hard work, and solidarity with the black people that they were also, by the way totally cool with.

[Narrator: “They didn’t and weren’t.”]

Buffalo Skulls

buff-skulls

When Raphael Lemkin first coined the term “genocide,” it was a word for what he was against. But the direct, programmatic, and industrial murder of an ethnic group—as has come to be exemplified by the Holocaust’s trains, gas chambers, and crematoriums—was not the only, or even the primary meaning of the term; it was not the only thing he was against. Today, for better or for worse, most people understand a genocide to be mass killing, organized and state-sponsored, with the Holocaust the original for all the other holocausts which must Never Again. Genocide is mass-killing, full stop. But Lemkin had begun thinking about legal protections for sub-national groups well before the second world war—starting with the Armenian genocide—and the crime to which he would eventually give a name was something more broad and expansive: any systematic and organized destruction of a collectivity’s ability to exist as a collective.

A people’s plurality could be destroyed in many different ways, and Lemkin’s great unfinished work was to be a general history of world genocide, with dozens of different and variant examples. For Lemkin, then, settler colonialism was clearly genocide: his general world history would have included chapters on “the indigenous people of North and South America, the Aboriginal Tasmanians, and the Herero of German Southwest Africa.” Organized mass-killing was only one way to end a people, and far from the only one: individuals could survive a genocide, for example, but if the basis for their collective life had been destroyed, then a genocide had still occurred. When settler colonialism makes it impossible for survivors to live indigenous life-ways—as when the Australian government removed Aboriginal children from their parents, for example, or when US policy towards natives was to “Kill the Indian, save the man”—then assimilation becomes a vector of annihilation. The survival of bloodlines is precisely not the point; with the possibility of living in a native sovereignty destroyed—the impossibility of living the collectivity that had made them as such—genocide was only the word for what had happened.

Settlers always know what they are doing, of course; it was why they worked so hard to slaughter the buffalo: they wanted to kill indigeneity, not just individual indigenous people. A people who marked time and history by the buffalo could not survive in their collectivity without it. And so, as “Plenty Coups” of the Crow nation put it,

“When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.”

His point was that without the buffalo—the object on and through which his people existed and made collective meaning—their history could not continue. Individuals could survive, as he had, but the people had (arguably) come to an end.

“White genocide” is the phrase that white nationalists use to describe racial integration. When white nationalists began targeting George Ciccariello-Maher for a pair of tweets—and for living the life that he lives—they didn’t accuse him of advocating “racial integration,” though that is, of course, what they object to. But even Drexel University would not have found a reason to call his opinion “reprehensible” if that was what he had called for. Instead, they accused him of advocating the mass killing of white people. They were able to do this because his first tweet—“All I Want for Christmas is White Genocide”—was followed up by “To clarify: when the whites were massacred during the Haitian revolution, that was a very good thing indeed.” If you combine these tweets–and accept their framing–it becomes possible to hear only the more limited sense of genocide in the phrase “white genocide,” to hear a call for the mass-killing of white people. This is how the public relations officer that crafted Drexel’s proclamation seems to have (mis)understood the two tweets: a leftist professor comparing white people, today, to Haitian slave owners, and advocating their mass-murder. But this is, of course, not what Ciccariello-Maher meant, just as it is not what white nationalists really mean when they use the phrase (which is why they carefully use it that way). The entire “controversy” is stupid, by the design of those who cannot bear the reality of an America that is already multi-racial: “white genocide” is a trap, designed to blur the incredibly important distinction between racial integration and mass-killing. These are not similar things. And yet, because university public relations is where thought goes to die, white nationalists like Richard Spencer see it as a major victory.

Words are powerful. Lemkin’s word, genocide, made it possible to look at what the 19th century sometimes called “manifest destiny” and see a crime. To the white settlers flooding the American west, their destiny to rule the Americas was “manifested” in the fact that their populations were growing and the native populations diminishing; the phrase “manifest destiny” is a way of looking at a genocide manifestly in progress and naturalizing it, of seeing a people fading from existence and making destiny the author of their misfortune. To call it “genocide” is to observe that it was planned and put into effect. The settlers who killed the buffalo did so because they knew what they wanted and how to achieve it.

Is “white genocide” a thing in this sense? Ciccariello-Maher’s response to being targeted was to observe that white genocide is “an imaginary concept” and “a figment of the racist imagination,” and, of course, he is right. The birth of a mixed-race child is nothing like the mass-killing of white people; to argue that they are similar is nonsense. But does the mixing of America threaten “white culture”? Does immigration and diversity threaten the possibility of living a collective life as white people in America? In David Lane’s “White Genocide Manifesto,” for example—a bastardized version of Lothrop Stoddard’s 1920 The Rising Tide of Color—Lane opens by asserting that “the term ‘racial integration’ is a euphemism for genocide”; because whiteness is a recessive gene that needs to be carefully protected from any competition (“The inevitable result of racial integration is a percentage of inter-racial matings each year, leading to extinction”), it cannot survive its dilution. The one-drop rule was once a Southern strategy for maximizing its unfree labor force; today, it poisons the groundwater of white nationalism.

In this sense, “white genocide” is exactly as real as “whiteness” itself. Whiteness is also an imaginary concept and a figment of the racist imagination, of  course, but that doesn’t make it any less real, or deadly; whiteness is a thing because people insist that it is, and use force and violence to make it so. Whiteness is a thing because white supremacists needed a name for their violent subjugation of others, and so they gave it one. In this way, whiteness is a uniquely virulent and pathological form of social identity. It cannot survive its loss of supremacy; it cannot abide competition or mixture or “impurity.” Created by racial slavery and given a second wind by European imperialism, whiteness depends on the violent subordination of all others. Celebrate your Irish heritage if you must, or your Pennsylvania Dutch grandparents; that has nothing to do with the whiteness that names me, now, but which (partially) excluded my Irish and German ancestors when they came to this nation. Irish and Pennsylvania Dutch can and will survive incorporation into a multi-ethnic nation, but it is the sine qua non of whiteness that it cannot and will not. Inextricable from racial subordination, whiteness has no other content at all: whiteness is what’s left in the melting pot after everything else has been burned away. Without that xenophobic fire, it has no meaning, no substance, no fundamental.

This is why “white genocide” actually does have a meaning beyond “racial integration.” If you take away a white person’s ability to live as the undisputed master of the universe—to take his own experience as normal and privileged, and to presume all others to be debased copies of his own primary existence—then you take away his whiteness. His heart will fall to the ground and he will not be able to lift it up again. After that, nothing will happen: whiteness will be dead.

We should welcome this manifest destiny. White people will not be systematically murdered, after all; non-white people mainly want to live as full human beings in the societies in which they were born, and they don’t need to kill white people to do it. In the 18th century, they did: if enslaved Haitians wanted to live as full human beings in the societies in which they were born, they did have to kill white people to do it; the only thing to regret is that enslavers laid the seeds of their own misfortune.

We do not live in the 18th or 19th or even the 20th century. Donald Trump’s generation can remember America before the civil rights movement, before California and Texas—and so many of our cities—became majority-minority, before their cause became a lost one. In a generation, Donald Trump’s generation will all be dead, and they’ll be replaced by the least white generation in American history. The arc of demographics is long, though: we’ll live the rest of our lives in a world where whiteness is backed in a corner, wounded and angry. We’ll live in a world where it has never been harder for a white person to live as the undisputed master of the universe, to take his own experience as normal and privileged, and to presume all others to be debased copies of his own primary existence, where whiteness is a plurality, still, but not a majority, where white people have dominance but no longer have hegemony. Because hegemony is dominance that doesn’t need violence to maintain itself, this is a dangerous world to live in: post-hegemonic white supremacy is organizing for war, and we will not be free of it for a long time. Because white supremacists see their morbid collectivity vanishing, they are willing to die for it, and to kill.

We can live for it, I hope. My children, if I have them, will speak Spanish, and in their life they will assimilate me into the new world we can all dream of creating together. Whiteness needs to die, because it was only ever about death in the first place. We can dream of something better, and more to the point, we can live it. A term like “white genocide” will not help us do that. But it’s good to look at what they are against, what they fear, what they hate, and remember what it is that we can be unironically for. There is probably a word for it, and I hope we all live long enough to learn what it is.