Saturday, November 05, 2016

Modern-Day Belief and Desire in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

No, the entertainment industry does not explicitly advocate the causes of today’s ruling class. If truth be told, both the TV and film industry, as capitalist as any other, have a long history of doing the exact opposite, of seeming to bite the hand that feeds them. Capitalist figures (think Montgomery Burns, Jabba the Hutt, Ebenezer Scrooge, Gordon Gekko, and so on) are far more likely to be portrayed as villains than as heroic saviors. And any film that explicitly aims to promote the virtues of capitalism will have little if any chance of raising the necessary capital to go into production, a seeming irony. But to see the lack of a pro-capitalist message as evidence of an anti-capitalist “liberal” bias in the entertainment industry, or, more alarming to some, as a sign of weakness within capitalist hegemony, is to misunderstand how power and ideology function in our time.

Consider the newspaper industry as an example. Sure, almost every major newspaper in the U.S. is owned by one or more major corporations who have explicit if unwritten rules about what can and can’t be covered as news, but, to be profitable, a newspaper can’t simply publish information that accords with the interests of specific corporations. Though newspapers may be owned by capitalists, it’s the masses, the working-class primarily, who have to buy those newspapers in order for the capitalist owners to make a profit. You won’t sell many papers by reporting exclusively on the fluctuations in the stock market, the year’s top wines, golf and yachting tips, or international tax havens. A profitable newspaper has to represent the dominant ideology in such a way that it appeals to the interests of ordinary people. To do that, it has to dwell on non-threatening (and seemingly apolitical) consumer interests, such as sports or celebrity gossip, and it can’t entirely ignore the sincere doubt and indignation that ordinary people have towards the ruling class, for our political leaders, in particular. To turn a profit, a newspaper can’t only focus on safe and ostensibly apolitical stories; it has to honestly address regular people’s real-life problems and the subsequent complaints that arise to confront those problems.

The film industry is no different. You can’t sell a movie to a mass audience by ignoring the problems of the masses. You can’t, for example, claim that capitalism has given ordinary working people a happy carefree prosperous life, for one simple reason: ordinary working people don’t live happy carefree prosperous lives. To sell your movie to a large audience, you have to either whisk people off to fantasy land (a seemingly apolitical maneuver that, like a sports article in the newspaper, serves the explicit political function of providing an escapist compensation for the suffering of real life) or speak directly to reality, to the very real concerns of the masses, to the material facts of most people’s lives that can’t be hidden, but in such a way that it avoids any revolutionary implications. Since certain concrete truths are too obvious to ignore, modern propaganda works not to hide reality but to obfuscate and disguise it.

If the US public has developed a growing mistrust of bureaucratic institutions responsible for intelligence gathering, then your film, if it wants to connect with the average viewer, should honestly represent that mistrust. To establish your street cred, so to speak, your film will have to accurately demonstrate the potential problems associated with massive surveillance. If certain sections of government can operate in secret and without democratic oversight, then what’s to prevent those agencies from forming their own independent agendas and then working against the very institutions that empowered their autonomy in the first place?  What’s to prevent intelligence agencies from becoming terrorist agencies? Thanks to the recent revelations of Edward Snowden and Wikileaks, such questions can no longer be laughed off as the conspiracy paranoia of fanatics. The threat that intelligence agencies pose to democracy is real, and in the recent film Mission Impossible Rogue Nation, that very legitimate threat is actualized, at least in fictional form. Former Secret Service agent Solomon Lane has hijacked a covert operation of the British government and formed the Syndicate, a rogue international terrorist organization dedicated to stirring up civil unrest. The Syndicate is described in the film as doing the exact same thing as the IMF, not the International Monetary Fund but the Impossible Missions Force, otherwise known as the good guys. “They’re trained to do what we do,” says Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), the film’s protagonist, an IMF member who goes rogue himself after the IMF is defunded by congressional committee. And what the IMF does is perform “impossible missions”, which is a simpler way of saying that they use technology, information, and trickery to manipulate environmental variables to produce desired outcomes.  Put another way, they manage history. CIA director Hunley’s (Alec Baldwin) description of Ethan Hunt would work as a raison d’etre for the IMF as a whole: “the living manifestation of destiny.”

Michelle Foucoult’s idea of bio-power has been described as power directed at man in general rather than at specific bodies. Traditional ideas of power stressed a sovereign’s ability to censor individual bodies, to repress one’s desire, or, more explicitly, they stressed the sovereign right and ability to kill; but while coercive power perhaps lurks behind modern forces of control, it is not, according to theorists such as Foucoult and Deleuze-Guattari, the primary means by which modern societies are organized and governed. Today, the freedom of bodies isn’t limited so much as it is forced to produce. Desire, in today’s culture, doesn’t have to be repressed, it has to be harnessed, which is accomplished less and less through laws that threaten punishment when disobeyed, through the threat of violence, and increasingly through administrative methods, through the creation of environments and technology that direct and even monopolize attention and therefore behavior in specific and designed ways, thus mediating social interaction and expression. No one thinks of a cell phone, pornographic film, or a highway as a type of social authority, but each of those technologies changes the way we interact with one another and move through space, thereby not censoring but shaping our lives and our desires. Power in today’s societies, bio-power, is increasingly not enforced or imposed but administered. By creating environments that suggest certain actions while concealing other possibilities, behavior can be managed with little or no need of explicit force. Today’s leaders, namely those in administrative positions, rule not with a mighty fist but with scientific planning principles. Put another way, they manage history. They are the living manifestation of destiny. As expressed by theorist Giorgio Agamben, life can no longer be distinguished outside the political technologies of control.

In Antonio Gramsci’s description of the hegemonic process, we learn that it isn’t necessary for the dominant class to sell a particular belief-system to the masses. What’s necessary is that the masses don’t acquire a comprehensive awareness of the hegemonic order that exploits them—that they don’t too strongly disbelieve in the system or understand too clearly what “the system” really means. One way to accomplish that is to represent an outdated mode of power and then condemn it. Films that vilify capitalists often take this course. Capitalist figures aren’t treated with much respect by the entertainment industry for several reasons, one of which is the indisputable fact that the nature of capitalism has changed and that today’s corporate dominated capitalism, developed with the credit system, has an increasing tendency to separate administrative functions from the ownership of capital, a trend Marx foresaw when he declared that it, this trend, "is the abolition of capital as private property within the framework of capitalist production itself."Truth is, socialized private property, not private property owned by a few robber barons, has been the dominate form of American capitalism since as early as the 1930s. Portraying capitalists as evil is as threatening to modern neo-liberal capitalist hegemony as critiquing the divine right of kings.1

But films such as MIRN take another approach to navigating the dictates of capital. MIRN doesn’t try to shift the focus of revolutionary energies to outdated and irrelevant modes of power, doesn’t channel protest toward the attacking of windmills, nor does it tell viewers to believe in Capitalism, or to venerate rich people, or even to trust our governmental leaders. But it does make any kind of coherent counter-belief (or belief period) more difficult. The film begins by representing legitimate fears about our present government’s unchecked and unprecedented surveillance and intelligence-gathering powers. And the film makes no effort to convince viewers that those fears are unwarranted. Instead, it conflates our fears of an autonomous US intelligence agency with fears of terrorism, international conspiracies, and crime in general. The subtitle of the film, Rogue Nation, voices a complaint made frequently and convincingly by leftist critics, a complaint that the United States is the most rogue nation on the planet, that it operates especially on the international scene and increasingly on the domestic scene as an unchecked power that flagrantly disregards basic human rights in order to protect its own interests. But the Rogue Nation of the film’s title doesn’t refer to the US government, except obliquely; it refers to the nebulous menace identified as the Syndicate. Sort of.  Ethan Hunt and the group he belongs to, the IMF, also go rogue in the film after the organization’s funding is denied. And then the two rogue institutions do battle. Going rogue, the film implies, isn’t the problem. In fact, as our obsession with comic-book superheroes such as Batman, The Hulk, and the Wolverine attests, one could argue that going rogue is almost a pre-requisite for becoming an American Hero. The effect of using the same term to describe so many different types of individuals and institutions serves to obfuscate our sense of the term as threatening, which then serves to mitigate our concerns about the rogue powers of government bureaucracy. Expressing concerns that the NSA could go rogue almost sounds sexy.

Not only is it sexy, but the idea of going rogue demonstrates a common device that modern civilizations use to deflect criticism away from administrative issues, a device Roland Barthes calls inoculation, the strategy of admitting a little bit of corruption into an institution so as to ward off awareness of its fundamental problems. 2 We see inoculation at work, for instance, in the argument that the problem of police violence isn’t with the official policies and practices of the police department; it’s just that there are a few bad eggs the department needs to get rid of. This gives the impression that the institution is capable of reform and that its problems aren’t systemic. The rogue cop, like the rogue judge, the rogue CIA agent, the rogue teacher, the rogue bank investor, and the rogue superhero, plays an important role in maintaining cultural hegemony. The rogue can serve both as scapegoat and as savior.

If the American public, for good reason, distrusts the CIA and NSA, distrusts its own legislative bodies as well as those of our closest allies, such as Britain, then any film that portrays those institutions, if it wishes to make a profit, has to represent that distrust.

 And MIRN does. It pokes fun of authority of all kinds, from the CIA and the Secret Service to the legislative bodies ostensibly empowered to keep them in check. MIRN is yet another anti-authority film, a staple of Hollywood, in which the rogue agent for Impossible Mission Forces, the other IMF, isn’t just fighting the evil Syndicate, a rogue outsider nation run by an ex-insider British MI6 agent, he’s fighting the whole system. And the system, in this case, is somewhat accurately represented as a system that operates beyond a recognizable or representable authority, through the bio-power of administrators. The problem, though, is that the really bad guys, not just the sorta bad guys (CIA), also employ bio-power to attain their ends. As a result, the problem of bio-power, or this specific instance of it, which is the use of intelligence and technology to administer society in ways amenable to the ruling class, isn’t confined solely to states or corporations, to the ruling class, but to people, nay, to life, in general—which is exactly what bio-power is, the power to manage bare life. It isn’t the improper use of bio-power, the film tells us, but bio-power itself that becomes the problem, which is to say that it isn’t governments or corporations but life itself and its implicit evil that we have to be concerned with. In other words, rather than confronting bio-power, we should accept our democratic sovereignty to administer bio-power ourselves, to become our own living manifestation of destiny. We should all become administrative managers of our lives, participate full-on in what Foucoult refers to as the self-care industry. We should use our inner rogue to combat our inner rogue, for the enemy and the savior are within ourselves, which is to say that we are all become homerus sacri and villain at once, both the villain as well as the villain’s conqueror. Political institutions cannot be blamed for our troubles, nor can we look to the institutions to save us. We have to save ourselves from ourselves.

The film’s counter-subversive power comes as much through confusing the potential problems associated with government intelligence gathering as through the de-politicization of the issue altogether. If going rogue is hip, then being overtly political is its anti-thesis, and the film tries hard not to align itself with any specific political agenda. The problem of going rogue isn’t presented as a problem unique to US intelligence gathering or to government intelligence gathering period, or even as a problem. It’s problematic, perhaps, but problematic in the way that human nature is problematic. It isn’t a problem of the system, a creation of a human organization; it’s a problem of human nature, of evil people like Solomon Lane, who will always be with us whether we live under the rule of mercenaries or kings. That’s the hidden message behind films such as MIRN: it isn’t that your fear is misguided, it just isn’t thorough enough. You SHOULD be fearful of what your government leaders might do and about programs that authorize unprecedented levels of government surveillance—and your fears are well-founded, but you should also be fearful of those telling you to be fearful, fearful of potential enemies and the enemies of your enemies and the enemies of those enemies and of friends, too. Everyone should be under suspicion, because the world is a wicked place, full of treachery and deceit, which is precisely why we need intelligence gathering. The message from the film is the same as the message of the TV series X-files: Trust No One. And since no one or no thing can be trusted, material reality is no longer an issue. What matters isn’t what’s real or not real, for who’s to say what’s real in the modern age of the Simulacra? Neither does it matter whether you believe or disbelieve—it’s that you want to believe, and what you want to believe, that’s important.

We all know that the missions of the IMF really are impossible, except in the alternative universe of Hollywood cinema, but that’s not the point. What binds us together as members of societies governed by bio-power isn’t a shared idea of truth, a common belief system that takes belief seriously; it’s desire that unites us—not really believing but wanting to believe the same thing. This is where the stunts of the film become more than just an afterthought or gimmick. In fact, they might be the most important elements of the Mission Impossible series. Of course we know that in real life you can’t race through Istanbul on a motorbike at speeds of over a hundred miles an hour. We know you can’t crash at that speed and escape major injury. But truth doesn’t matter. Nor does belief. As Slavov Zizec has pointed out, belief and ideology can be maintained as easily through others as through ourselves—and that’s true even if the others, the true believers, are completely contrived. As long as we want there to be someone who believes, that’s all that matters. That’s enough to maintain the system of belief and all the rituals related to it. In this case, we want to believe that life is manageable, that we can fully subjugate all its messy abject qualities into the safe haven of an administered society—into the polis, which, in today’s world, is almost wholly fictional—a fictional world that now serves to replace material reality, that mediates our very access to the material, so that, as in a Concentration Camp or a monastery, rule and material fact are no longer distinguishable. Our common desire is for the material to be exorcised from existence so we can thereby gain the immortality that the proliferation of images has always offered: the cartooning of the body into a machine that can take ever more severe punishments and keep on ticking, as something torn out of its original context that now floats free on the ebb and flow of market forces. Not only is the commodified body that we create on Facebook and Twitter and Match.com free to circulate in space, but also it has lost its moorings in the past. 2  The stunts performed in MIRN, like Wily Coyote cartoons, satisfy the modern mind’s desire to be free of history and nature, to be liberated in the eternal present of the commodity. This is the goal of bio power today: to commodify bare life, body and spirit, and it’s our desire to transcend human limitation, to exile bare life, that binds us to today’s mechanized power wielders. We wish to exile our natural bodies, the Homo Sacer of today, and become pure image, a sovereign free and everlasting, that, like Ethan Hunt, can’t be destroyed because he has fully transformed into the impossible. 

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