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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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Independent Poetry and the Pleasures of Concrete

(A review of Michael Onsando’s poetry chapbook, Something Quite Unlike Myself, by Kenyan poet and friend of the blog Stephen Derwent Partington, first published in Kenya’s “Saturday Standard” newspaper, reprinted with permission)

When cowardly local publishers abdicate their cultural obligations and fail to print any decent local verse whatsoever, brave poets go abroad or go it alone.  Increasingly, talented new Kenyan poets are finding that they must turn to self-publishing.  Even our younger, funkier presses seem to privilege fiction over poetry; some newspaper and magazine editors seem pathetically confused by the genre, and avoid it altogether.  Many fine Kenyan poets, most of them young, have necessarily self-published.

The most recent entry into our Kenyan pantheon of ‘Talented Poets who give a Damn where Publishers Don’t’, is award-winning social blogger Michael Onsando, with his excellent new chapbook, Something Quite Unlike Myself.  A chapbook is a pamphlet of just a few pages, often self-produced and invariably less expensive than a full-length collection of the standard 60-70 pages.

Onsando’s chapbook is easy to slip into the brown envelope you’re carrying, or the iPad case you’re skipping around with, or the huge Dan Brown novel you’ve spent thousands of shillings on at the expense of more interesting Kenyan writers.  Like the publishers, you people are borderline cultural traitors, hehe.  People, you can redeem yourself a little by buying Something Quite Unlike Myself, a series of easy-to-digest poems which, nevertheless, are packed with meaning.

That’s the joy of good poetry: it condenses meaning into a tiny linguistic espresso.  This makes it tougher and more resilient than fictional prose, more able to withstand all manner of interpretations.  Look, for instance, at Onsando’s untitled four-liner, reproduced alongside this article.  The words alone would do something, even if they were all presented as a single sentence.  But with that punctuation and the different fonts, something else happens; something greater.

Onsando blistered feet

It is an enigmatic little poem, one posing more questions than answers.  This is a consequence of the poem’s conciseness, its brevity.  We ask ourselves: Who is the speaker, and who is the woman in the poem?  Is Onsando the speaker, and what has he been doing to get blistered feet?  Are they blistered now, as she views them, or is the woman asking him, during a meeting after the event, about his feet that were blistered some time ago?  Are they lovers?  (If so, the lines would be recited with love, concern and interest, as if the questioners are sympathetic: ‘Oh, I’m sorry about your feet’; ‘Oh, your hands look beautiful’).  But Onsando leaves the context unsaid, and so it’s possible that the two characters in the poem actively hate each other and the whole verse is instead a two-way diss, the opposite of loving; we could then paraphrase the first couplet as ‘Goodness, your feet look terrible’ and the second as ‘Well, your hands look stupid!’  Or perhaps these are sly, backhanded compliments from two snooty wits to each other.  We don’t simply don’t know.  We have to guess.  We have to participate!  Yes, reading can get your brain off its ass(!?)

Varying fonts is a strategy used by Onsando in many of his poems.  Here, it draws attention to the two qualified nouns (‘blistered feet’ and ‘manicured hands’) and adds a visual dimension that works to blur the division between visual (art) and traditional written literature.  We can loosely call verse that merges the image and the text ‘Concrete Poetry’, and it’s oddly difficult to do this as well as Onsando does.

Concrete poems have a spatial existence as well as linguistic ‘meaning’, and lie somewhere ‘between poetry and painting’, as a critic once proposed.  Certainly, Onsando’s example here, and others in the collection (such as a poem in which the word ‘up’ goes, well, upwards), present what can be called pictorial typography, or images produced by type, similar to what happens in Apollinaire’s famous concrete poem, ‘Il Pleut’ (‘It is Raining’), the text of which streams down the page.

Interesting about the font in Onsando’s poem is how ‘blistered feet’ is in a large, bold, solid-looking font; perhaps these are a labourer’s feet.  ‘Manicured hands’, however, is in a stylishly curling font, perhaps suggesting elegance, class and wealth; manicured hands are not callused, are not the hands of a manual labourer.  The word manicured ‘means’ cared for and classy, and the shape of the font supports this meaning, reinforcing it; image and text work together as what one theorist has perhaps prosaically called an ‘imagetext’.

When reading this poem, then, we might appreciate two worlds colliding: the poor young man and the rich woman.  Disney’s The Lady and the Tramp, perhaps, or an episode of KTN’s Tujuane in which a streetwise young man from a poor background is patronized by a snobbish young woman with class-attitude.  Perhaps the line break, then, represents the class divide? Perhaps this is how Onsando envisaged the poem.  He has certainly said of Something Quite Unlike Myself that it is ‘about a class that is completely oppressing the class below it’.

It is no coincidence, perhaps, that Onsando has previously participated in collaborative projects that combine images (Kenyan photography) with text (Kenyan poetry) such as the online Koroga Project, which is worth Googling.  It may well be that Onsando is becoming one of our more interesting poets in terms of breaking away from ‘pure text’ and spinning the word into other art forms.

From personal poems of inequalities in love, to poems considering more overt political oppression and violence (there are poems on extra-judicial killings and politician’s rhetoric), Onsando’s innovative verse uses font colour, style, size and fading to produce a huge diversity of meanings from poems that appear deceptively ‘easy’.  This is great crossover poetry, then: generous to the reader new to poetry, and fascinating to the academic reader.

It is the type of poetry collection that leads this commentator to in turn say something very much unlike myself: to hell with the mainstream publishers, if they won’t publish innovative stuff like this, for independents like Onsando are able to do it better than you would have.

(Something Quite Unlike Myself is available at the Yaya Centre’s ‘Bookstop’, and from Amazon)

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Against Literary Passports: the Many Languages of African Literature” (Conference Paper)

The long(er) version of a paper I delivered yesterday at the “From Asmara 2000 to Nairobi 2014: New Horizons and Trends in Africa Languages and Literatures” conference at Kenyatta University in/at the edge of Nairobi. Having delivered it, I am now much clearer on what I should have written instead: I should have shown more, told less, though harder about how and less strenuously about what. It is instructive that especially when broad polemics—such as the “declarations” that are ritualistically issued from such conferences—serve as claims of intellectual priority, in practice, there is also a quiet but real tension between such rhetoric and the almost mechanical process of actually-making-it-happen. Perhaps both are necessary, in some mutually dialectic way. But I was struck, for example, by the ways something like the African Storybook Project is engaged in just getting out of the ways of storytellers, of simply enabling and materializing the presence of the ball you need if you want to play soccer, as they put it. Polemics run dry when everyone already agrees on the “what must be done,” and meta-polemics might be even drier.

In short, I wrote this paper, and doing so has made me think hard about the kind of paper I would like to have written instead. I guess that’s a good process.

The Asmara declaration of 2000 emphasizes the problem of linguistic “incongruity”:

“We identified a profound incongruity in colonial languages speaking for the continent. At the start of a new century and millennium, Africa must firmly reject this incongruity and affirm a new beginning by returning to its languages and heritage.”

I am interested in the choice of the word “incongruity,” here, and in the implication that an incongruity, as such, is a bad thing. Why would it be? More specifically, why is it incongruous for a colonial language to speak for Africa? In one sense, the answer is obvious, and we all know why. Though the Asmara declaration does not define what makes an African language “African,” or clarify the difference between languages which are really African, and languages which are colonial, and therefore external to Africa, this is the distinction: to be colonial is not to be African, and vice versa.

The neatness of this definition is tempting. And most of the time, it works, and we all more or less know, in practice, what the term “African language” means, and why it is a bad thing for “colonial languages” to speak for the continent. Colonial languages are not African, by virtue of being colonial, which is to say: they are alien, imported, and foreign, imposed by conquering invaders by force and, with the end of colonial rule, left without a reason for their continuing and widespread use. If we can agree about that, then we can probably all agree that, as colonial languages, English, Portuguese, and French are not “African languages.”

To that list, some would add Arabic, in the same way that when people say Africa they often mean sub-Saharan Africa, what the colonial rulers called “black Africa.” Arabic would not be considered an African language, then, in the same way that Egypt or Algeria are sometimes not considered African countries. But it’s always easier to act as if the distinction is obvious and apparent than it is to explain why it is, or defend it. One might even go so far as to call Kiswahili a colonial language. The story of Kiswahili in Africa goes back eight centuries at least, yet even in mainland Tanzania, the history of Swahili is also the story of German colonial administration and then British. Certainly it’s an African language; when pan-Africanists suggest a continental language to unite Africa, Swahili is almost always the obvious choice, since it’s the closest thing to a truly pan-African language one could name. And yet, it would be hard to argue that it isn’t also a colonial language, especially when you start talking about places like Uganda or Eastern Congo, where it was colonization that changed Swahili from a trade language to a necessary language of everyday life. As Johannes Fabian and others have shown, Kiswahili was used as a language of domination by the Franco-Belgian colonizers in many parts of Central Africa, as well as by Germans and English in East Africa. At independence, when Uganda considered adopting Swahili as a national language, Milton Obote’s government declared that “Swahili, though spoken widely in East Africa and elsewhere, is not a mother-tongue in Uganda.” The minister of education would declare Swahili to, in fact, “as foreign to Uganda as Gujerati.”

I hope you’ll forgive me for telling you what you no doubt already know. But this, I think, is the problem: when we have this discussion, we so often already know what we already know. We can say “African language” as if we all agree what we’re talking about. We have to, in fact. The more we talk about what we know, the less clear it can be that we actually know it: if you start talking about the nuances and histories and ambiguities of language, it becomes harder and harder to take a clear and unambiguous stand, or achieve consensus. If the drafters of the Asmara Declaration had tried to define what they meant by “African” language—to draw clear borders between mother-tongues and foreign—that specificity would have made consensus more difficult, as a variety of linguistic realities would suddenly find themselves crossed by the border.

To put it differently, then, linguistic realities—the lived texture of language use and the histories that language contains within it—do not allow for the kind of straightforward polemicizing that a document like the Asmara declaration, and declarations of its kind, require. My point is not to criticize it, then, or the people who wrote it; my point is to illuminate the structural constraints that they were operating under, and which make it nearly impossible to come to any kind of workable consensus on what is, or isn’t, an African language. One has no choice but to beg the question. This is why even the famous polemicists who first defined this debate in Anglophone literary critical circles, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Chinua Achebe, have much more complicated relationships with language than their polemic stances might sometimes indicate. Ngugi’s famous “Decolonizing the Mind” was to be his farewell to the English language, but he has written his last two memoirs in English, first, and always been more widely read in English than in any other language. And Achebe, though a defender of English as a national language of unity for Nigeria, has also written in Igbo, and his dreams for the state of Biafra might have included an adoption of Igbo as a primary literary language, had the fortunes of war not intervened.

These inconsistencies are not criticisms of these writers, however; the problem is that linguistic borders are messy, ambiguous, and impossible to clarify. And to put it more bluntly, it is often not a good idea to clarify the difference between us and them:

To declare that “Swahili is not a mother-tongue in Uganda,” or that it is “as foreign to Uganda as Gujerati,” is to call upon the same system of racial classification that colonial law used to differentiate Africans from Asians. And as Mahmood Mamdani has powerfully demonstrated, this binary division between Africans and Foreigners has continued to structure the ways in which certain postcolonial African states have defined some Africans as less African than others, sometimes with genocidal consequences. Idi Amin’s expulsion of Asians from Uganda in 1972 and the Rwandan genocide, after all, were both conducted under the official claim that Ugandan Asians and Rwandan Tutsis were foreign invaders, and could thus be targeted for repression. The same linguistically xenophobic dynamic can inform ethnic violence anywhere; in 2007, when speaking the wrong mother-tongue could mark the speaker as the target of political repression and violence. And what does it mean to speak Somali in Kenya, today?

My point, simply put, is that striving for clarity and simplicity in these matters may not be a good thing. In Africa, perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, borders are fictions whose fantastical claims are revealed the closer you get to them: when the Berlin conference of 1885 created the borders of British East Africa, they created political divisions between Somali speakers, Maa speakers, and Luo speakers that had not previously obtained. They started calling the Swahili speaking people of the coast “Arabs” even though they had been living there for centuries. There are so many similar examples that I won’t belabor the point. What makes Eritreans “African” while the people of Yemen are Arabs is the Red Sea and politics. But the languages most commonly spoken in both countries—the “mother” tongues for both peoples—are more similar to each other than they are different: while Modern Standard Arabic is the most commonly used language in both countries, the many South Semitic languages spoken in the region connect the horn of Africa to the middle East and vice versa. Language is better at showing the falseness of boundaries—and the violence necessary to police them—than at making them seem natural and God-given.

Now, nothing I’ve said so far should be interpreted as any kind of dissent from the desire to encourage and honor the status of African languages in Africa, especially vis-à-vis English and French; it’s my own shame that my Swahili is as bad as it is. My argument is different: to embrace the linguistic diversity of the African continent’s cultures and societies, it’s important to think about the kinds of diversity that the colonial mind could not comprehend, and sought to stamp out. For the British and the French—and for the United States, today—the norm has long been monolinguistic non-diversity: to be British or American is to speak English; to be French, French. In my own state of Texas, to be a “Hispanic,” which is to say, a speaker of Spanish, is to be treated as if you are a member of a foreign ethnic group. “Hispanic” is almost a synonym for Mexican. This is what settler colonialism does: Spanish speakers whose families have lived in Texas for longer than the United States has existed are suddenly marked as foreign.

But is there anything less “African” than speaking only one language? What family tree describes an unbroken line of linguistic continuity going back to the dawn of time? In fact, if we think of language in terms of family trees, what we get is intermixture, going all the way back: Swahili is filled with Arabic ancestors (and so is Spanish), the same way English is filled with German, French, and other European languages. This is just as true almost anywhere in Africa: if you can describe the languages spoken on the African side of the Red Sea as belonging to one branch of the Semitic family of languages, and languages on the southern Arabian peninsula as belonging to the other, the metaphor of trees shows us how what we’re really talking about is a single, broad family, joined by the hyphen in Afro-Asiatic. But just like human families, languages are exogamous, and they grow and evolve by taking in new information as they expand and intermix and karibu strangers to come closer. If English is a good literary language, it’s because it has promiscuously picked up a tremendous amount of genetic material from other languages, and the same is true of Arabic or Swahili, and probably every language ever. We should embrace this diversity. Hybrid vigor is a good thing; inbreeding is not.

If we think about language in this way, it becomes harder and harder to draw clear distinctions between authentically African languages and colonial languages. Which is not to say that it isn’t still important to decolonize the mind, but that it means something different to do so. The problem with colonial languages was never that they were foreign, it was that they were a means of domination and control. But an African language can also be a means of domination and control; it isn’t where a language came from that determines the difference, but how it is used and what it is used to do. After all, when the Asmara declaration demands that “All African children have the unalienable right to attend school and learn in their mother tongues,” this is a different claim than “All African children have the unalienable right to attend school and learn in African languages.”

I want to close, then, by observing something that my friend Keguro Macharia pointed out to me, as I was preparing this essay. In a eulogy for a friend, Ngugi wa Thiong’o referred to himself as living not in California, but in “Karibonia.”

In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors named part of North America after a mythical country in a popular novel of the time; today, it’s one of the fifty states in the United States, as well as two states in Mexico, Baja California and Alta California Sur. Some scholars think the Spanish novelist Garcia Rodríguez de Montalvo took the name from the eleventh century French epic, La Chanson de Roland, in which it appears as a line describing two of the places where the speaker expected rebellion:

“And in Africa, and those in Califerne”

When placed right after “Africa,” the speaker might mean “Califernia” as a derivative of Caliph, or “Caliphate,” a reference to an Islamic state ruled by a Caliph.

What language is the word “California”? If it includes Arabic, French, Spanish, and English—and lives right next to Africa—why can’t it also be Kikuyu, as in “Njikaraga Karibonia Amerika”? Why not all of the above?

Not to make too much of this, but it’s a nice reminder of the fact that even Ngugi’s Kikuyu was always a reinvention, never something to return to but always a means of marking the way forward, especially by taking on new words. In that vein, let me stop by suggesting that maybe language itself, is—if you’ll pardon me—a kind of karibunia, a country that welcomes everyone and never checks your papers.

Is Genocide Right For You?

Many people have a misconception about genocide, which is not banned by international law, but is strictly regulated so that it can be conducted safely and sustainably. This is as it should be. The role of government is not to dictate to the market what forms of ethnic cleansing are to be traded, though the government still plays an important role: regulating genocide so that it can be safe for consumers. The market has spoken, and people want genocide! But we must all work together to keep this cherished international institution solid for the 21st century. The children are the future.

Is your nation licensed to conduct genocide? Contact a governing body to find out the rules and regulations that apply in your area. There may be a governing agency that can help you determine what steps you should take.

Remember, while genocide is not right for all circumstances and situations, and must be used responsibly, it can be highly effective in nation-building, establishing a political power-base, and incorporating the military industrial complex into every aspect of a secure economic total future. If you are unsure whether genocide is right for you, check with an adult first. If you are not authorized to conduct a genocide yourself, don’t despair: it may be possible to commit genocide under supervision, or to contract an authorized agent to conduct genocide for you.

Be careful: despite the common misperception that “ethnic cleansing” is distinct from genocide, the difference is less substantive than legalistic: all genocides are ethnic cleansing, but some ethnic cleansings are not genocides. In either case, you will need authorization for any sort of politically-motivated mass violence directed at the destruction and non-existence of a particular people or nation. Since there is no such thing as “minor genocide,” it is better to be safe than sorry.

If you find you have conducted a genocide without proper licensing, don’t panic: you have 90 days to file the appropriate paperwork without penalty. Even if the 90 day period has passed, you may still be able to participate in genocide amnesty programs, depending on your structural position within global patriarchal whiteness.

Contact the UN if you suspect an unauthorized genocide is being waged in your area. Without proper supervision, genocide can be dangerous.

Texas Stands With Gaza

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A Selfish Statement.

When used in bad faith by Zionist warmongers, the phrase “Stop Singling Out Israel” is an effort to change the terms of the debate. Instead of talking about Israel and what it is doing (they argue), you should be looking at places that are much worse; Syria, for example. Used in this way, it’s effective sophistry. Though implicitly conceding that Israel’s repression of Gaza is at least in the same category as the military repression of Syrians (a remarkable concession, when you think about it), the re-framing forces the American-based, human rights oriented critic of Israel onto a different plane of debate, demanding that you justify why you are focusing your condemnation on Israel in particular. Since, in absolute terms, the slaughter in Gaza is significantly less than the slaughter in Syria—thus, presuming that “absolute terms” is the right metric, and that we are some kind of disinterested counter of bodies—the argument demands that you explain your double-standard, and strongly suggests that anti-Semitism is the answer. You must be singling out Israel because you hate the Jews.

It’s worth asking this question in good faith, however. As with so much right wing sophistry, there is a kernel of true insight woven into the logic: Israel and Palestine do receive a truly remarkable amount of attention in the United States, a surplus that has to be explained. We are obsessed with it, right, left, and center. Why?

Many Zionists would explain this surplus of attention by invoking the specter of anti-Semitism, but while the narrative of anti-Semitism they tend to provide is so impoverished and ahistorical as to make that answer useless, the question is a real one. “We” are singling out Israel, if the “we” in question is American non-Jews. But what is Israel to me? What right do I have to voice my opinion? Why does this humanitarian catastrophe matter so much to me? Why do I love and hate Israel? Why does America have a “special” relationship with Israel?

America stands with Israel as Israel Stands Its Ground; this is the political reality, an identification with Israel that is unshakable, unconditional, and unlimited. That’s enough of an answer right there. 100% of our politicians support Israel without significant reservation; at most, they offer constructive criticism—“maybe kill fewer kids?”—and they are always ready to help the IDF reload. The US population is, by and large, extremely supportive of Israel, though the ignorant fantasies that Americans have about what is actually happening are a large part of the problem; fantasies grow in ignorance like plants grow in dirt, but the seed is what starts it, and the seed is there. Nevertheless, where there are exceptions, we are a minority and we feel like it. Most Americans “stand with” Israel rhetorically, and all of us support them with our tax dollars, whether we like it or not. In practical terms, if you’re my age, you were born “Standing with Israel.”

This is the easiest answer to the question of why to “single out” Israel. We pay for an astounding amount of the military hardware that Israel is using to kill Palestinians—whether we like it or not—so it’s incumbent on us, at the very least, to speak up and decide which “us” we want to be included in. It is the very least we can do, and it isn’t very much, and it’s not going to save any lives any time soon; witnessing is not an intervention, by definition. But when this country’s entire political class closes ranks behind Israel, can you opt out of having an opinion? They are having an opinion for you. You can say yes or nothing, or you can say no: you have precisely those two choices. You can either say yes, my government represents me, or you can say no, they don’t.

Or maybe nothing is so simple as that, and easy answers are to be peered at skeptically. Identity and emotion usually explain more than budgets, but they are also much harder to talk about: whatever our reasons are, the stories we tell about Israel and Palestine are sometimes/often/always cover stories for the narratives we’re telling about ourselves.

To be as blunt as I can be, then, with the blunt instrument that the word “yes” is: in precisely the ways that hate is love gone bad, yes, I do hate Israel. I also hate the United States and Texas, precisely because I live in them, and hope to continue doing so. I don’t want to kill anyone, or hurt anyone; I hate because I want to stop. Hate is what happens when love doesn’t keep its promises, when a consuming identification becomes disgust, and we vomit out that which has suddenly become foreign. Hate is anything but rational and reasoned: it is the body’s defense mechanism against that which the brain didn’t know enough to reject.

So let me vomit it out: I hate white men, America, Israel, and Texas. I hate what my identification with these identities makes me, what it means to carry an American passport and a Texas driver’s license, and to pay taxes that buy bullets to kill brown children. These are things that I have been force-fed, and I want to vomit them in a last ditch effort not to digest them. That’s what this Texans For Gaza event, tomorrow, is. We all know that Texans don’t “Stand with Gaza” in the normal sense of those words; if ever there was a population you can generalize about, after all, it’s Texans, and we all know what Texans are and stand for, don’t we? (do we?) Texans stand their ground, and those words should make us sick to our stomachs. That’s why it’s important to say other words, to try those words out on our tongues and see how they might taste. Maybe we don’t know as much as we might think, and that’s a good thing.

rallyI wish I could be there; this post is my substitute, and a purely selfish one. Instead, tomorrow I will take my American passport and my Texas drivers license, and I will fly to another country, where the fact that I’m an American white man living in Texas will be an important part of my reality as a human being. People will see many things when they look at me, but that will be one of them. And even if they don’t, I will be less charitable than they will: I will look in their eyes, and see, reflected back at me, my own fears about who I am. Between me and the other world there will be ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, will flutter round it.

I use W.E.B. DuBois’ words, there, because he describes double-consciousness in terms which fit the experience, one of the many places where DuBois will teach you more about being white than any white man. None of us are precisely what we are, or are supposed to be; if it’s differently true for people of color, it is also true that a Texas-resident American-born straight white man like me will feel the dissonance and friction between me and not-me, and produce narratives of identity out of it.

A lot of people don’t realize it, but it was very important to Dubois that he chose to be black; early in his astoundingly long life, in Germany, before he wrote Souls, or even “The Conservation of Races,” DuBois dallied with the idea that race didn’t exist, that it would be better to be color blind and to hold that all humans were simply human, no more. He became a great philosopher when he outgrew that notion, when he began to think about the materiality of the race fiction: whether or not it’s true is irrelevant to the fact that it means something, and does something.

“But what is this group; and how do you differentiate it; and how can you call it ‘black’ when you admit it is not black?”

I recognize it quite easily and with full legal sanction: the black man is a person who must ride “Jim Crow” in Georgia.

To pretend that race does not exist is to obscure the fact that some people must “ride Jim Crow in Georgia,” and because they do, the fact that you don’t is a fact. To deny that citizenship exists, and means something, is to obscure that some people have passports that either function as apartheid travel papers or, because they don’t have travel papers, make them into illegal human beings. I have an American passport, so I can travel where I want; if I were an American Jew, I could move into a Palestinian’s house. I didn’t make that choice, but the fact that it was made for me makes the world I live in what it is. I hate “America” because I have no choice but to be an American, because I hate what other people have made me into, and because I hate the fact that I wasn’t consulted. The same is true for “White Men”: it is precisely because I am a white man that I have to concern myself with the ways that patriarchal and white supremacist violence structures the world I live in. The wages of whiteness are not a check I can leave un-cashed; we white men were long ago auto-enrolled into direct deposit.

DuBois chose to be black, because it was the choice he could make. As long as there was Jim Crow, he was black. But what he understood, and made clear over the course of his long and productive life, is that there’s agency in choosing the choice that’s been made for you, or at the very least, there’s self-knowledge. To pretend that you can choose, when you can’t, is to live a lie. To choose the only choice that’s available to you, on the other hand—to let yourself be interpellated—is the only way to come to grips with the reality of the world you live in. It is precisely because we didn’t choose to be white, or black, or American, or Jewish, or Palestinian—or whatever the world might tell us that we are—that we have the ethical responsibility to come to grips with what others have chosen for us to be. If you are white, you don’t get to pretend that Jim Crow has nothing to do with you. If you are an American, you don’t get to look away from Gaza, or to pretend that Israel has nothing to do with you. You don’t get to sit on the fence. Your elected representatives have taken that choice away from you, when they decided to speak in your name, the one small injury in this whole catastrophe that you can legitimately claim. No one else cares whether you agree with that choice, unless and only if you contradict it. You can only choose to be white–if you are me–but to do so makes other things possible.

That’s why a sentence like “Texas Stands With Gaza” has the ring of poetry in it, for me. It isn’t true—poetry never is—but goddamn it if it isn’t a sentence that feels good on the tongue, a little like stretching your legs after an intercontinental flight. It does us good to say it. Because the other words don’t have to be true either; language is what it’s used to say, so let’s say better things. And if it doesn’t save a single man, woman, or child from the sniper bullets, tank shells, and missiles our governments provide—and we can’t dare to hope that it will—at least we will know that we have done the very least that we can do. That is a nourishing thing to know.

Update, August 3: from yesterday. These are all Texans, even if they are not all Texans.

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Fox Austin: ‘Texas Stands with Gaza’ rally draws thousands to Capitol

A Snowpiercer Thinkpiece, Not to Be Taken Too Seriously, But For Very Serious Reasons

That Snowpiercer is an allegory for capitalism and revolution has been widely and well-discussed—for example, see Emma and Peter Frase—and I already knew it when I went to see the movie. So did Unemployed Negativity:

“I scrupulously avoided reading any reviews of Snowpiercer once I became intrigued by the basic premise. Despite this, and not reading anything after seeing it this afternoon, I was aware, in that way we become aware of things through an almost social media osmosis, that it was quickly being heralded as a new film about the 99% and the 1%, about social inequality, and, more importantly, about revolution.”

This reading is easy, and correct: the train is the capitalist economy, and while Curtis and company initially set out to seize the means of production (the engine), the revolution stops being reformist when Curtis makes a Big Discovery about how the train works, at the end, and decides to go large instead.

As an allegory, then, the movie is insistantly anti-reformist, in the terms by which “reform” and “revolution” are understood to be different and opposite things. Reform and revolution are shibboleths that distinguish liberals from radicals: while liberals want to reform capitalism, without fundamentally transforming it, radicals want to tear it up from the roots (the root word of “radical” is root!) and replace capitalism with something that isn’t capitalism. “Fundamental” is often a begged question, of course, and the dividing line between revolution and reform is rarely as clear as it can seem in polemic usage. But if you’re the kind of leftist who thinks that the means of production just need to be in better hands—Obama, for example, instead of George W. Bush, or Elizabeth Warren instead of Obama, or Bernie Sanders instead of Elizabeth Warren, and so on—then this movie buries a poison pill inside its protein bar: soylent green is people, you idiot, its kids, you’re eating kids, and you like the taste.

Such a system cannot be improved by reforming it. Since eating kids is about as close to a universal taboo as we’re likely to find, a system based on that form of consumption is impossible to justify; as Ed Harris notes, while frying up a nice piece of what I would like to assume is human baby—you have to be a little bit insane to live on this train. In such a context, “reform” is simply a matter of making it operate more efficiently. You can replace the engineer with a new engineer, but it won’t be different when “we” run the train; the engine remains, and its needs will always dictate what the train needs to function. You will still need to put babies in its belly.

Is a civilization that survives by auto-cannibalism sustainable? Is it worth sustaining? This is a question that the movie raises at several points, particularly when we learn why so many of the passengers lack arms and legs. At one point in the origin story of the tail-section, we are told, Gilliam and others cut off their own limbs to feed the others—a story I’m tempted to regard as more of a mythical primal scene than something that could actually happen—but the train, as a whole, replicates this structure, producing a humanity that eats itself to survive. And let’s not forget, they do it willingly. Just as Gilliam gave his arm willingly, the two children in the engine also seem to stay there by choice. What makes Wilford truly diabolical is that he can and does talk you into sharing his insanity, into choosing to join him.

This is the truly despair-inducing ending, then, Curtis’ realization that there is no alternative: when he finally meets the Wizard of Snowpiercer, he discovers that the thing he’s been fighting and bleeding for—to replace the bad leader with the good leader—is a mirage. Even the White Males who have symbolically castrated themselves and become mother figures instead—even Gilliam, who cuts off his arm and feeds it to the babies—turn out to be a part of capital’s mode of reproduction by auto-cannibalism. Gilliam and Wilford are Curtis’ parents—as he is traumatized to discover—and even the revolution is an integral part of the train. Only the engine is eternal.

This fact, however—as the ending reveals it to be a fact—is also what makes the movie anti-revolution. There is no alternative. Kill yourself. Or, instead of killing yourself, perhaps you should give your body to the others, so that they can live? That must have been Gilliam’s thought process, as well as the two children we see “working” in the engine. It’s a reasonable train of thought, and it leads to insanity. But what other choice is there?

* * *

Let’s back up a bit. For most of the movie, I was irritated by what seemed to be a hole in the plot: what are the tail-section people even for? They are so obviously extraneous to the operation of the train that they cannot stand for an exploited proletariat in the classical sense. They do not seem to provide anything with their labor, because they do not seem to labor. The front section passengers do not need them. So why haven’t they just let them die? It certainly doesn’t seem to be mercy.

A part of what they provide, it turns out, is psychological comfort. The rest of the train has everything it could want, because desire cannot survive without lack to give it meaning. If you have everything you want, you don’t have want at all. Conversely, to believe that you don’t want for anything, “nothing” needs to exist to make extraneous desire unthinkable. This is the first purpose of the tail section: to convince the rest of the train that they have everything they desire (and want nothing), the tail section passengers must exist so as to provide a zero-point from which pleasure and desire can be measured. In this way, by creating a space in which desire and frustration and hope and fear can actually still be exercised—because the first class passengers can never change or progress or grow or evolve—it becomes possible for the 1% to forget that they are standing still on a moving train.

In this way, even the “revolution” only keeps the system sustainable. Without occasional violence, there would be only pleasure, and pleasure fades when there is nothing but pleasure. At a certain point, you need blood; the revolution provides that blood, as does counter-revolutionary violence against the bare-life tail-section passengers.

Let’s not forget, after all, that while we see scores of lounging, decadent drug-addled first-class passengers dissipating themselves in pleasure, as our heroes navigate through the bowels of capitalism, we also see at least as many black-masked, hatchet-wielding thugs, first class passengers who are ready, willing, and able to kill on command, and who apparently live for that command. Even the party-raver passengers turn into a murderous mob when given the opportunity to do so. Even Tilda “Ayn Thatcher” Swinton pivots easily from punching down to punching up; given the opportunity, she’s as happy to live by killing Wilford as she is to live by killing passengers. They are one and the same thing; killing is what makes her alive.

Snowpiercer is a truly chilling dystopia, then, because its world is fully self-contained, and sufficient. But the most insane thing about it is that it makes sense. And it crystallizes something firghtening about the psychic geography of late capitalism, a technologically-enhanced state of affairs in which the function of the oppressed masses is less and less to work and be exploited than to be excluded and to suffer. The first world, the movie might seem to argue, works less to provide its citizens with pleasure than to shape their desire by constructing others through their pain, lack, and death. Instead of giving Texans a health care system, for example, late capitalism gives them the illegal immigrant, to hate, to fear, and to dis-identify with. Prisons do more and more of the system-maintaining work that was once done by schools and hospitals: instead of giving us something to want, they give us something to fear, hate, and kill. And so, we eat ourselves.

* * *

Does this make the movie a Marxist “allegory” for capitalism, as so many of its readers have claimed? In one sense, yes, and even the director has said so. By using a dystopian future to represent capitalism, it argues that capitalism is a dystopic machine, that it keeps us alive by allowing us to sustainably eat ourselves. The worst thing about capitalism, in other words, is that it does keep us alive: to stay alive, we must be capitalist, but the more we eat ourselves, the less we actually die. Accelerationists might take up the part of Marxism which suggests that capitalism is unsustainable, and will inevitably accelerate until the point it goes off the rails, and use that to argue that we should go ahead and speed up the train. But the truly horrifying possibility is that this is not what will happen, and that the faster we go, we only auto-cannibalize ourselves more efficiently as the system closes itself more tightly.

In a way, however, “allegory” is the wrong word. Allegories always flow out of the reality principle that makes a narrative subterfuge necessary; to unmask the fact that a story which seems to be about one thing is actually about another thing, is to demonstrate that there is something unspeakable that you can only suggest by misdirection and implication. As Anne Helen Peterson suggests, for example, Jaws is an allegory for capitalism because “hey, capitalism eats the young” was not something you could really say in the 1970’s, and Steven “Damn, I love kids” Spielberg certainly wasn’t trying to say it. But a movie like Jaws is compelling because it manages to say it, without actually saying it. It tells us something we know to be true, but we aren’t allowed to say. It is therefore a relief to see it on a screen.

What does Snowpiercer allow us to say? What relief does it provide? Does it tell us that the one percent are eating the babies of the poor? Yes, but we already knew that, and we can say so if we want. (Go ahead, say it; no one will stop you). Does it tell us that capitalism sucks and that we should smash the state? Yes, but the cold war is over and that kind of radical utopianism doesn’t have quite the aggressive subversiveness that it once might have had. When the Soviet Union existed, there was (or seemed to be) an alternative, so being anti-capitalist could mean being for something else. Does it, today? For an awful lot of people, it doesn’t, because there is no alternative. Be as anti-capitalist as you like, those people now say; read Thomas Picketty, if you want. You still have to shop at the company store.

Calling Snowpiercer an allegory for capitalism, then—and especially reading it as an argument for revolution—elides the things that make it scary. If a director can make a movie about how capitalism is auto-cannibalism, and say so, then it’s not an allegory for capitalism. How can the train be a metaphor for late capitalism when it literally is, in the movie, the form that capitalism takes after climate change? It is the latest possible kind of capitalism, a capitalism that no longer makes anything other than pain and suffering. The train is the capitalism that it has eaten up the entire world, and is now just living off its own stored reserves of fat.

Snowpiercer is not about the revolution we might have today, then; it’s about the time after revolution has ceased to be possible. As a dystopic future, it can even be recuperated into a call to save the present, precisely so we don’t get to the point where Snowpiercer has already gotten. It could be a call to revolution: what we need to do is change the system. In this way, however, it isn’t “about” contemporary capitalism at all. Or if it is, then it’s already too late; if children are the only food sources left, then our choice is no choice: we can kill ourselves or eat ourselves, each of which implies the other.

* * *

My favorite part of the movie is the moment when Curtis reveals the Big Secret about his dark past, and Nam’s response is to thank him for telling such an interesting story.

coolstoryCurtis thinks he’s just blown Nam’s mind, by revealing the dark truth at the basis of everything. But Nam already knew that Soylent Green was people. In a way, so did we. Cannibalism is such an omnipresent over-text of the movie that the story of the back-of-the-train’s primitive accumulation of protein is not such a stunning revelation. In the saw way, Curtis’ deep shock at discovering what the protein bars are made from—Bugs!—demonstrates the kind of naivete that makes him a plausible revolutionary leader, a romantic idealism that makes him exactly the kind of fool that Gilliam would pick to lead a sham revolution. What did he think they were eating? In some parts of the world—like Korea, to pick a totally random example—insects are recognized to be a perfectly healthy and nutritious source of protein. Would you rather eat children? What if your “clean” food was made in sweat shops? (Breaking: it is!)

When Curtis tells Nam his story, he thinks its shameful, as he had another choice. He still thinks that a benevolent leader could fix things, and make an equitable distribution of resources. But Nam knows what Curtis doesn’t; while Curtis was eating people and then trying to forget, Nam was in the front part of the train, watching it happen, planning, and building security doors. Nam has decided that there is no alternative, and never was. That’s why he has a different plan: to blow up the train and destroy humanity, forever.

That’s not revolution. That’s the end of the world. And let’s take a moment and remember what a relief that moment was, what a catharsis. Everybody in this movie needs to die, and they all do, thank God. That’s the real ending of the movie, and it’s pleasurable to watch, a relief. The movie fades to black before we see the polar bear eat those two kids, but let’s not fool ourselves: those two kids are not going to wander off into a new Eden and repopulate the earth (and not only because there are only two of them, though that lack of genetic diversity is one of humanity’s many death sentences here). Nature is about to eat the children that were just saved from being eaten by the train. A polar bear is not a sign of hope, because polar bears eat people, and, anyway, how is a pair of children who have never been off the train—have never even seen dirt—going to be able to live on what is basically Antarctica? Those kids are already dead, in days, if not hours, if not minutes.

The best case scenario is that they don’t die yet. If they survive by eating the (conveniently refrigerated) human meat they find in the various trains around them—or in the frozen cities of the frozen world around them—there is nothing like a utopian vision to be found in this scenario, only another primal tragedy that either starts the whole damned thing moving again, or keeps it moving a couple more rounds. At best, they are still parasites on what’s left of industrial capitalism, the roaches that survived the nuclear holocaust. They are not, and will not be, Inuits or any other variation on the paleo-primitive savage; Nam’s dream that it is possible to survive outside the train, if you just remember to wear a coat, is totally totally unhinged, the sort of dream that a guy who’s been living in a drawer and doing drugs would dream. The fact that he has made some observations out the window of the train does not make him a reliable climatologist. His most compelling piece of evidence that life outside the train is possible—the fact that a crashed plane seems to be emerging from the snow—is only persuasive if you are already persuaded. That plane is on a hillside, with arctic winds blowing over it; maybe, just maybe, the entire planet isn’t unfreezing because, actually, some snow is just shifting around a little bit? Occam’s razor says it’s probably just some snow shifting around a little bit. To take that plane as evidence of global warming is about as rational and well-founded as taking a blizzard in May as evidence that climate change is nonsense.

At the same time, his insane choice is as close to sanity as you’re going to get on this train. We don’t know he’s wrong, just like we don’t actually see the polar bear come over and snack on the kids. His choice is the correct one within the logical box the film has constructed. A tiny, microscopic chance that things are getting better outside—a desperate and unfounded faith without reason—is actually a better bet than hoping that things will get better from within, because we know that is not going to happen. That train is fucked, as Yona observes; either there is salvation outside or humanity is better off not existing at all. We have no reason to believe it’s the former, but if it isn’t—if there really is nothing else—then we have lost precisely nothing by the discovery Humanity is a terminally ill 95-year old living in tremendous pain with extremely low quality of life. It’s time to pull the plug. Anything is better than this, and so is nothing.

beyondWhy do we like watching a movie that fantasizes about the end of all human life? Freud had to invent the “death drive” to explain what the pleasure principle couldn’t, the fact that people sometimes put themselves in danger on purpose, and seem to feel an attraction to death that cannot be explained in terms of a utilitarian economy of pleasure-maximization. Suicide is irrational, yet people do it, and people also seem to like to tantalize themselves with death. As Freud noted, then, there is a death drive: sometimes death is a mercy from unlivable life, and sometimes we take risks because it makes us feel alive.

This is not to say that we really want to die. Death is the ultimate outside to living experience, the absolute unknowable; we cannot want it, therefore, because we cannot know what it is. But “death” can be the fantasy that drives us: we may not really want to die (and who knows what we really want), but the idea that “I wish I was dead” can be a way to articulate the unbearable reality of a life we cannot bear, and yet for which we have no alternative. Death is the ultimate alternative, and an inevitable one. So when nothing in life suggests that another world is possible, the idea of death can serve as the alternative that is, in the end, not only possible, but inevitable.

This is why the movie ends with everything being blown up, and why it’s such a relief to see the entire train be destroyed. Nothing good can or will come from that train, and its total destruction is a relief. For the viewers, we get death without death: we don’t actually have to destroy the entirety of humanity to enjoy the fantasy of all the things we hate about ourselves, as a species, being obliterated. By making that train the crystallized encapsulation of everything that is awful about late capitalism, Snowpiercer lets us watch it burn. This is what movies do, let us enjoy the fantasy of something we can’t really want in reality, or something we want without wanting all of it.

In this way, Snowpiercer is less an allegory than it is an extended, narrative form of ruin-pornography. As critics like Fredric Jameson or Slavoj Žižek like to proclaim, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,” but this bit of conventional wisdom is true without being quite as revelatory as it can sometimes seem. Of course we can imagine the end of the world; everywhere we look, we see death and decay and non-life. WWII gave us a truly vivid and comprehensive picture of what the end of the world looks like, and so does Gaza and Syria: syria pic WWII pic gaza picSnowpiercer is different mainly because it covers these ruined cities with snow. But look around you, anywhere in the everywhere of slow American rust and urban decay, and you’ll see the same story playing out before your eyes. The cities we thought we were building, at a time when trains were the very height of utopian ambition—the future of Ayn Rand and Lenin alike—are either sick, dying, or long dead. The 20th century had a future that won’t come.

In a way, that’s sad. But the dream of high modernism was always already also a nightmare. See how little you have to change the old Michigan Central Station to make it into the new one, the dead one:

old station detroit trainPeople can’t live in either of them, but one of them has color. Our cities have always been concrete sarcopoli, for as long as they’ve been what they are; without the countryside outside of them—feeding us with the living material of the earth and providing somewhere to dump our waste—they would become concrete tombs. And so, the dark dreams of industrial capitalism have always been the knowledge of the outside that is required to keep the radically un-closed system viable, the death camps, prisons, workhouses, and meat factories that “we” have always subjected “them” to. And we have always feared that we would become them.

White people began to say “Never again” after the holocaust, because for the first time, white people worldwide had to face the possibility that it could happen to them. It’s no coincidence, then, that only the white men in the movie want to build a utopian closed system, with themselves in charge. They believe in it, believe that it’s possible. Those who have been “othered” are much more cynical, and have much more modest goals: keeping their own kids alive.

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This is a movie in which there is no alternative. Is there no alternative? If so, Margaret Thatcher was right. But to place that vision of reality onto Snowpiercer is to read it much too literally. This is a movie about how awful it would be if she is right, a world in which another world is not possible. More than that, it expresses the horror of utopian idealism gone wrong, the idea that all you have to do is kill the king and Democracy! Whisky! Sexy! will magically takes its place. It is not an argument for the status quo to observe that it can be pretty horrible when it doesn’t.

What would a revolution look like? What would an after capitalism actually be? It’s reasonable to be skeptical. None of us have ever seen earth, and in that way, we’re like Yona: our food comes from the supermarket, and when the shelves go bare, we will probably starve to death. That’s what the end of capitalism could look like, whether it’s brought on by climate change or some other energy crisis. And it will end. There is no such thing as a perpetual motion machine, and we’re running out of the carbon energy that industrial capitalism was built on. By the same token, Wilford thinks he’s built a truly closed ecology, but that dream is at least as crazy as Nam’s, just as much a fantasy. Everything stops, eventually, and that’s as true of capitalism as it is of our individual lifespans. Even the universe will eventually die of heat death.

We spend most of our time and energy acting as if it isn’t, and as if we have the power to stop it. We act as if we can live forever, and even our risk-taking might be, in part, an effort to forget the fact that we know we can’t: I choose to smoke because choosing to die reassures me that I have a choice, that I could also choose not to die. But we can’t live forever, and we won’t. That doesn’t stop us from living healthy, or whatever, but it does mean we’re only adding time to the clock.

We also tend to pretend that our current civilization can survive climate change. Can it? I don’t know how anyone can reasonably think that we’ve got more than a century or so before the train goes completely off the rails. Trains only look unstoppable, which is one of the great things about Snowpiercer’s metaphor: sure it can blast through obstacles, if they’re positioned just right, but it doesn’t take all that much lateral force to knock it off its tracks. And once that happens, it’s not going to right itself. Trains don’t go back onto the tracks, and climate change doesn’t reverse itself. It’s a runaway train, and once we hit the point of no return, we’re not going to return. When climate change really happens, that’s the end of everything we are and know. “We” won’t survive, and whatever survives—which is unlikely to be human—will not be “us.” Climate change is species death, probably, and civilizational death, definitely.

* * *

We shouldn’t necessarily let that get us down, though. I mean, did you think you were going to live forever? Did you think your kids were? If so, cool story! Death is the thing we always live with and no one gets out of here alive and so forth; you can evade it, for a while, but it’s the only thing more reliable than taxes, because even rich people die. Etcetera, after cliched etcetera.

The only real question is what to do with that fact. And the answer is: not much. You can’t. Death is the negation of doing, by definition. Even suicide is not death, but the prelude to it, the thing you do just before all doing stops. But that’s why utopian thinking threatens to become dangerously unhinged from reality if it believes in itself too much: imagining that you can live through death is a good way to turn life into death. A Thousand-Year Reich is built on death camps, pyramids are built with slave labor, the Soviet Union with gulags, and the neoliberal End of History was the beginning of the United States’ great explosion of prison-building and a global forever war on terror.

If nothing else, one pleasures of Snowpiercer is that it punctures the illusion that rich people can buy immortality, something we 99%ers enjoy because we know for damn sure that we can’t and won’t. The moment when Curtis attacks Tilda Swinton rather than trying to save his little brother Edgar, for example, is a moment of great pleasure for the audience, and that’s something the movie forces you to confront: you wanted her to die more than you wanted Edgar to live. That’s the reason she’s so awful, why the movie puts all those unendurable platitudes about order into her mouth: she believes, as does Ed Harris, that there is order in the universe, and we—like Curtis—want to smash that smug belief more than we want her to be right. We want to smash it because it’s the thing we wish we could believe in, but can’t. To want him to save Edgar, we would have to think that there was hope, and we don’t; enjoying Tilda Swinton’s death, on the other hand, is to feel justified in nihilistic despair. This is a movie about nihilistic despair, the nihilistic despair that is the only reasonable response to the fact that we’re all going to die and everything we love is going to disappear.

But why have a reasonable response to that fact? What has “reason” ever done for us, other than produce utilitarian arguments for the liquidation of human beings and the commodification of everything? Reason makes it possible to declare that the deaths of children are “worth” it, whatever the fuck “it” is supposed to be. Reason makes despair possible, the same way aspirations to immortality make death unbearably sad. Reason helps us get nowhere and never stop going there.

The problem with calling the movie an allegory is that allegory doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know, and it hides the thing you didn’t realize it was persuading you of. Allegories are closed ecologies. If Snowpiercer is a movie about capitalism, then we already know what it is, and says, because we already know what we know about capitalism. If you think a death-train of the damned in a post-apocalyptic hellscape is an allegory about capitalism, then it’s because you think capitalism is a death-train of the damned in a post-apocalyptic hellscape. But if everyone knows that the train is an allegory for industrial capitalism—and everybody certainly seems to—then it’s not a secret, and not the kind of allegory Jameson was talking about when he described anti-capitalism as our political unconscious. It’s anything but the kind of unspeakable, repressed truth that we all pretend not to know, even to ourselves; the fact that the train is capitalism is the thing we allow ourselves to talk about because we’re afraid to talk about the real thing it is, which is death, our fear of death, and our desire for the thing we fear. We’re all going to the same place, and we’re all going nowhere at the same time; there is nothing outside of life, nor is it enough. There isn’t a happy ending, just an ending. And so forth.

This movie takes for granted that there is no alternative, and that’s the thing we shouldn’t take seriously. It’s just a movie, a movie built on the ability of a writer to imagine a scenario precisely in the way he chooses. In Snowpiercer, there is nothing outside of the train: life is just measuring time until death. There is something outside of Snowpiercer, though: us. As Ed Harris points out, near the end, “Curtis’ Revolution” is not a revolution, it’s a movie about a revolution, and as such, it displaces and suppresses real disorder (Nam and his daughter are the real free radicals, for him, because they are willing to blow up the train and take their chances with the bears.) But a movie about Curtis’ revolution is also not a revolution, and that’s what we’ve just watched: going to see Snowpiercer is escapist fantasy. It is the fantasy of escape we enjoy, but it might convince us that escape is an impossible fantasy if we make the mistake of taking the movie too seriously. But it’s a movie.