Monthly Archives: July 2006

Postmodernity as White Guilt: Michael Haneke’s Caché (first impressions)

Michael Haneke’s Caché is one of the more interesting recent French films, even more interesting if you also watch the 20-minute interview with the German filmmaker. If I had more time I’d write a Chronicle on this subject.

Media intellectual Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil) finds a series of mysterious VCR tapes of his house and personal activities along with semi-childish drawings of a man with blood on his throat. (The metaphor of life as a video was a striking if easily missed feature of Haneke’s first and nastiest film, Funny Games, in which a couple of satanic young men torture and kill a family for their own amusement; at one point, the woman grabs a gun and points it at the evildoers, whereupon the film “rewinds” and rectifies the situation to the liking of its subject-author). The trail of the videos leads to Majid, an Algerian man whose farmworker parents had been killed in the bloody suppression of an FLN demonstration in Paris in 1961; Auteuil’s own parents, their employers, intended to adopt the young orphan, but Georges (if I understood the film correctly) cut the head off a chicken and blamed it on Majid, who was sent to an orphanage. Georges visits the now grown Algerian in his HLM and accuses him of sending the harassing tapes, of which the latter claims to be totally unaware. But the next tape shows Majid weeping with frustration after Georges’ departure. We meet Majid’s son, who also denies knowledge of the tapes. Finally Majid urgently invites Georges back to his apartment and on his arrival, after swearing he had no knowledge of the tapes, cuts his own throat in front of Georges and dies. Georges steadfastly refuses to feel guilty about any of this; even if he framed the Arab boy, he was a mere six years old at the time and should not be held responsible for the other’s unhappiness.

After the suicide, Majid’s son comes to see Georges in his office and insists on speaking with him, but we learn that his only purpose was to discover how Georges was bearing his guilt–which he continues to deny. The final scene takes place in near-darkness; Georges finally levels with his wife (played by Juliette Binoche, who with dark hair looks oddly like Catherine Zeta-Jones), then takes a couple of sleeping pills and retires to his room, shutting out all the light. This leads him to dream of the day at the family farm when Majid was taken off to the orphanage; we then cut to a long take of students exiting a lycee, in which Haneke pointed out that both Georges’ bratty son and Majid’s son were in conversation, although I could not identify them on my TV screen.

We never learn who sent the tapes. Haneke suggested it might have been one or both of the sons. But clearly that is not compatible with the content of the film; the only possible explanation is that the filmmaker “sent” them; they are a projection of Georges’ guilt. And indeed, Haneke made clear at the outset of the interview that his film was about bearing and denying guilt. In the rest of the interview, he insistently suggested that it was up to the spectator to figure out what was going on; in the final scene, were the two boys conspiring? was the Beur leading the other astray? Was Binoche having an affair with her friend Pierre? It’s all so postmodern.

Yet there is one thing that is not “multicultural” or “undecidable” or “aleatory,” that is not in the film to teach us the “Nietzschean” lesson that truth is whatever we want it to be: white guilt. We don’t know where the tapes are coming from, or even why Majid commits suicide, but we know that Georges is guilty. The Algerian context is projected on the present in a news program that refers to the Iraq war; but even forgetting this overt political analogy, Georges is guilty toward the Arab world, as presumably we all are toward some group of Others. As a German, Haneke has impeccable guilt credentials of his own; the pot that calls the kettle black is well aware of its own blackness. The German filmmaker acts as the Frenchman’s conscience. “We” are all guilty, but “we” is not everyone; guilt is not original sin, but sociopolitical domination, what I have called firstness in other contexts. The son’s utter contempt for his parents, which is very nearly par for the course in the French films I have seen recently, is a visceral moral revulsion. The hope for Europe, if there is any, is that its native sons will repudiate their guilty parents and join forces with the sons of immigrants–not exactly what happened recently in France over the CPE proposal. But purgation is a secondary matter; it’s the guilt that counts. Whence the unexpected absence of violence inflicted on Georges; even Najib’s son, a strapping fellow who could probably whip Auteuil with one hand, suggests that Georges could beat him up because he is the stronger–echoing a similar remark from his father. No burning cars here.

The intimate connection between postmodernity’s denial of “truth” and its fundamental post-Holocaust affirmation of guilt has rarely been made more explicit. As in a novel by Robbe-Grillet, we don’t know if it’s on tape or real or dreamt, but the fact that it is “there” at all is a reminder of an unambiguous event–the killing of 200 Arabs on October 17, 1961 that gives proof of Our guilt, like the bomb in Hiroshima mon amour. This sounds unhappy, and Haneke acknowleged that this is a “sad” film. But it’s really not so terrible. Georges, the allegorical representative of old Europe, winds up in a dark room, peacefully sleeping while the world goes on. When he finally wakes up, there will probably be a lot more Nabils than Georges coming out of that lycee, and they will be unlikely to express their resentment by weeping. Georges might do better to take a few more pills and not wake up at all.

-eric gans

No elephants around here!

A columnist’s commemoration of the first anniversary of the London subway bombing:

I know, I know. Some of you will be shaking your heads now, saying, “Hey, give the Republican anti-terror strategy a little credit here. After all, we haven’t had another 9/11-style attack, have we?” True. But if you think the lack of another major terrorist attack means the GOP approach to fighting terror is working, remember the old joke:

A guy is throwing sawdust out the window. Another guy comes along and says, “Why are you throwing sawdust out your window?”

“To keep the elephants away,” says the first guy.

“But there are no elephants around here!”

“See? It works!”

Rosa Brooks, The Los Angeles Times, July 7, 2006

-eric gans

Hostages

This will be an experiment in applying originary analysis to an ongoing historical event–that is, the kind where facts undermining the very premise of your analysis might emerge before you’ve completed it; or, to put it another way, before the event is over or “sealed.”

How should we make sense of Israel’s current campaign to free Gilad Shalit, the soldier taken captive by Palestinian terrorists in Gaza? I ask because there seems to me something that doesn’t “fit” here, because I haven’t seen anyone take note of it, and because it seems to me that this event might illuminate some contemporary trends that Eric Gans has discussed in various Chronicles of Love & Resentment regarding contemporary terrorism, white guilt and the problem of asymmetry.

What I find puzzling, at least according to reports I’ve seen so far, is that Israel’s operation seems to be neither a rescue operation nor the initiating of a full scale war on the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority. A rescue operation, I assume, would be targeted and secret–it would, for example, perhaps be carried out under the guise of “negotiating,” and would therefore not be aided by this full scale assault (or the threat of one–it’s not that clear). At the same time, it doesn’t seem to be an invasion, because the assumption seems to be that if Shalit is returned unharmed, we would return to the status quo ante–that is, Israel doesn’t seem to be taking the kidnapping of one of its soldiers as a causus belli that could no longer be satisfied by anything Hamas does regarding Shalit (just as a Japanese offer to pay reparations for the attack on Pearl Harbor wouldn’t have undone that act or seriously deflected its consequences). I haven’t seen, for example, the Israelis explicitly bringing the continual rocket assaults on Southern Israel since the withdrawal from Gaza into their justifications for entering Gaza. What it looks like to me is that Israel is using its vastly superior military might to intimidate the Hamas government into forcing the kidnappers to return Shalit unconditionally. So, the means of warfare are used to solve a hostage problem, which is hard to see as anything other than a serious mismatching of means to ends: as if the Israelis had bombarded and invaded Uganda in July 1976 to force them to release the hostages held at Entebbe, or the Americans had done the same in Iran in 1979–and then, say, after having secured the release of the hostages in the Embassy (or having failed to), had simply returned home after destroying a good portion of the country (a lot more of it if they failed to secure the release).

One could understand this approach if it were still advisable to simply, as some, like John Derbyshire of National Review like to see, bounce enough rubble to shut down whatever threat a particular weak country poses. This is the unapologetic 19th century imperialist approach: we value the life of one Westerner over your entire country; if you want to play in the big leagues by picking a fight with us, expect it to be no holds barred; and, of course, we have no expectation that you will change your morals or mode of government in the slightest, we just expect you to keep your pathologies to yourself.

I’m presupposing Gans’ analysis of White Guilt in this discussion: the event of Auschwitz (revealing the ultimate consequence of violations of the basic egalitarian premises of modernity), multiplied by the event of Hiroshima (intensifying beyond the possibility of human survival the implications of “Auschwitz”) and, finally, rounded off by an admittedly tendentious reading of Vietnam (even the the self-declared democratic countries are not immune to such extremes–even more, their self-understanding as the “Free World” locked in epic battle with “totalitarianism” might very well license such extremes) has become an unescapable political paradigm. The left has redefined itself, following the fall of Communism, around the propagation of White Guilt, sustaining and seeking to extend the elaborate system of taboos it requires. And the Israeli invasion and then occupation of Lebanon in the early 80s provided the perfect opportunity to apply the template to Israel tout court, with Israeli intellectuals, always imitative epigones of their American and European colleagues, eager to advance the project.

The problem is that no diagnosis of White Guilt, however sharp and comprehensive, can exclude the diagnostician for the simple reason that all out war on the part of the West, and certainly the U.S., is, indeed, impossible. As long as we don’t obliterate our enemies with nuclear weaponry we are “holding back,” which is to say tacitly admitting the asymmetry constitutive of any contest. The incentive to present a particular kind of defiance is thereby inherent in any Western war making: the Third World “resistant” can always say, “go ahead, kill me,” knowing that any such killing is selective (we kill a very small number out of all those we could kill) and therefore tainted (since the choice of who to kill is always to some extent arbitrary, it is always possible to frame such killings as a sign of both weakness and brutality).

An instance of this paradox is in Israel’s decision to arrest the Hamas leadership itself–there was previously the policy (or, perhaps, practice) of targeted assassinations back when Hamas was merely an underground terrorist group (embodied in all kinds of above ground activities as well, of course); Israel seems to be threatening to resume that policy today, but so far they are just detaining Hamas leaders. On the one hand this may seem especially humiliating for members of what is now a “government”; on the other hand, it’s hard to see what deterrence power this entails, since once detained the leaders know they will not be mistreated, much less killed. And if they can be captured and detained, what justification remains for killing them? How long before calls to release them or put them on trial become an international cause celebre? And who else, aside from perhaps Israelis themselves (and not all of them by any means) would be convinced by a trial, no matter how scrupulous? They would still be widely viewed as prisoners of war, leading to more kidnappings of Israeli civilians and soldiers.

There might be one way out of this stalemate that Israel seems to be unintentionally generating, and that is indicated by the occasional hints that Syria may be held responsible for the activities of Hamas. In other words, even when dealing with suicidal terrorists, those terrorists, at some point along the way, are dependent upon the support of someone who doesn’t want to die–find that weak link and attack it relentlessly. Here, the asymmetry shows up as an advantage, but the risks involved dramatically increase. Without a sustained unity of purpose between, at least, the U.S. and Israel–a unity of purpose which has not yet taken shape and will not as long the U.S. government is still thinking of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a “peace process” which is crucial to the War on Terror rather than simply another front in that war–such an approach is most likely to get caught in the same tangle of cross purposes: Israel will threaten Syria, giving Syria the opportunity for some credibility enhancing “defiance,” knowing that Israel will not be able to carry through on its threats because as soon as one starts modeling possible consequences the advantages of doing so start to look vaguer and vaguer.

This seems to be a kind of degree zero of the victimary, leaving the stronger party with the equally untenable alternatives of investing unsustainable resources and moral capital in rescuing single individuals (which might not even be possible–what’s to stop his captors from simply killing him once the rescuers get close?) or initiating full scale warfare without any definition of “victory” that doesn’t simply lead you back to a status quo ante that has already been tried and rejected. (And, of course, the Palestinians are equally trapped, since a condition of this condition is that they can’t accomplish anything either, even on their own terms)

And yet this intense focus on the fate of a single individual, so much a part of Israeli morale and morality, must nevetheless be a basis for constructing some kind of new and more adequate approach. We can assume that one consequence of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza has been the loss of strenuously (and, no doubt, often, in moral terms, dubiously) constructed intelligence networks which otherwise might have facilitated the rescue of Gilad Shalit. Why not compensate for that loss by announcing that all Palestinian individuals who offer intelligence helpful to the recovery of Shalit will be granted asylum in Israel, with a chance of gaining Israeli citizenship at some point down the road–including, let’s say, immediate family members and anyone else associated with that individual who might be in danger of being murdered as a “collaborator”? Let’s see how solidly Palestinians are united behind their new, “resistant,” uncorrupt leadership. Let’s find out how much, as individuals, they genuinely hate Israel. On the Israeli side, genuine solidarity with those Arabs who have taken the side of Israel’s right to exist, and, more generally, the side of peace and democracy, would have to now be demonstrated (as, we must acknowledge, has by no means always been the case). Attention would be redirected towards the maintenance of “consensus” among the Palestinians, to the treatment of “collaborators,” and divisions within Palestinian society might open up–not towards civil war, but towards new ways of being responsible for one’s community. For example, Palestinians with the courage to provide intelligence, or just speak openly in ways that subvert terrorist plots, might decide to reject the offer of Israeli citizenship as a way of demonstrating solidarity with a community which they would now be daring to protect them. New icons of political courage would emerge.

This approach would not exclude waging war against the Palestinians as they are currently constituted; however, it would certainly enter into strategic and tactical calculations–but perhaps in positive ways. Rather than calibrating attacks and withdrawals according to the false logic of encouraging and strengthening “moderate” negotiating partners, the calibrations would now be aimed at giving Palestinian citizens the space in which to step forward, and form relationships with Israelis that would match the various theaters of protest in which Israeli leftists and Palestinians periodically participate. And I haven’t touched on how even a trickle of such Palestinian dissidents into Israeli society might lead Israelis to think about citizenship in new ways.

Perhaps not a single Palestinian will step forward. We would be back in a bad situation, back trying to figure out what form of pain could, at this point, have significant influence on either the Palestinian government or people. But we would be no worse off than we are now, and perhaps a little better, morally speaking.

Scenic Politics