Thoughts on Pacific Rim

November 28, 2013

I watched Pacific Rim last night, which caused me to Think Thoughts, which I decided to type up while the turkey cooks.

1. So Pacific Rim is pretty interesting in the way it conceptualizes globalization, not as global, but as regional, or rather, hemispherical. In fact, when I first heard the name, I thought of the way the U.S. organized World War II: the Pacific Theater. It also calls to mind the way Paul Gilroy insists on highlighting oceans, the space of flows (capital/bodies/culture), rather than the static spaces of continents, nations, populations. As is typical of cinema of our era, it’s a mixture of avant-garde postmodernism with a very retro

2. On that note, Pacific Rim‘s genre of the “giant destructive monsters” is incredibly overcoded as WWII-era. The original Godzilla was far from the kitschy Saturday afternoon adventures I remember, but rather a horrific and tragic metaphor for the nuking of Japan during World War II, released less than 10 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Monsters serve to make social and political issues, such as nuclear trauma and the fear of mutually-assured destruction, tangible. 

So Pacific Rim is overdetermined generically by this nuclear war parable — as is so clear, Hollywood, like the Pentagon, has trouble thinking outside Cold War allegories, and nukes/weapons of mass destruction overshadow a lot of the film’s imagery of destruction. But as a film made in 2013, Pacific Rim is also overdetermined by its historical moment. The monsters are classified like hurricanes — Category 3, 4, 5 — and a brief but pointed remark is made that pollution has made Earth habitable to the monstrous invaders. The lead character remarks that inside his mech, he feels like he can fight hurricanes. So these monsters also carry a charge of disastrous climate change: the destruction of coastal cities by immense forces of (unnatural) nature, which we must struggle against. (Interestingly and refreshingly, September 11 is kept at bay — nothing NYC, no destruction of iconic structures, last-minute decisions of the doomed, etc.) 

2a. I think the hipster biologist implied the dinosaurs were an earlier, failed kaiju invasion. Very odd for a man of science to hold such creationist views!

3. The disasters of the kaiju necessitate a coordinated international response. The world powers have to “put aside their differences” to fight the common threat. Here is a utopian promise of climate change often put forth by optimistic wings of the environmental movement: that looming catastrophe will facilitate global collaboration and coordination (which of course is not the case, actually the powers of the world are content to do next to nothing). What is the framework for this coordination? We’re never told, but it appears to be an immense (supra-)state/military project, that retains some level of national autonomy. Notably, nations are referred to by their global megacities: the Chinese mech is the protector of Hong Kong, for example. Mike Davis would approve.

What’s interesting is how we don’t see international collaboration and integration occur: via the circuits of global capitalism, driven by the competitive laws of markets. There’s a reason for this, of course: Americans hate this about the Pacific, with the common image of jobs and investment traveling to China (and before that, Japan), but also to places mentioned in the film, like Manila. Rather, this fantasy rewriting of globalization occurs via global militarized governance funding massive public works projects in the name of emergency. Which is to say, it’s the fantasy of what fascist, rather than market capitalist globalization would (or, heh heh, does) look like. This is in some sense another pomo retro mashup, which even colors the “precarity” angle at the beginning. Raleigh is rendered technologically obsolete as a skilled worker (due to state funding priorities rather than “exigencies of the market”) and instead must scrabble for contingent construction work on the massive public works project of the anti-kaiju wall (which looks a lot like the Hoover Dam to my eyes). 

3a. So with the fascist governance structure controlling production, we should ask ourselves: is straight-up capitalism represented in the film? It is, as Ron Perlman’s steampunk-pimp trafficking in black market organs. Capitalism is understood as criminal, and even orientalized (his operation is in Hong Kong, people in rice paddy hats harvest the fallen beasts, and the operation specializes in male potency treatments a la rhino horn). Pure capitalism is reduced to a rump of the economy, but still essential: the markets are the only way to procure the necessary kaiju specimens. Capital here is illicit, underground, dishonorable yet possessing an outsider charisma (Perlman is some of the only humor in the film), and performing certain essential functions for the fascist government, which tolerates its presence.

3b. As a fantasy of globalization, the “area studies” orientation of Pacific Rim leaves out those troublesome folks of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. The “Special Relationship” with Great Britain is snuck in through the backdoor of Australia (most Americans can’t tell the difference) and Idris Elba’s character.

4. Pacific Rim theorizes a kind of biological unity required to pilot the jaegers. At the beginning, every team is related, most frequently siblings: they have an enhanced ability to occupy each others’ memories during “the drift,” the mind-meld required to pilot the mechs. The Aussies are a father-son duo, and the Russians and Chinese are sibling teams. The trauma of Raleigh’s brother’s death in battle drives his “wounded outsider” characterization of individuality so endemic to American cinema. (It must be said, the film wears this rather lightly — all the major characters are of that bland determined self-sacrificing mode rife in contemporary fascist cinema, and Raleigh is a suitably boring white Anglo for a movie where the special effects are the stars.) 

However, the second half violates this precept. We are told Raleigh demonstrates his skill by piloting the jaeger to safety solo, after his brother was ripped from the cockpit. He has to audition a new partner, via martial arts battles, and for some odd reason the best bond is with a Japanese woman, Mako. You would think a common linguistic bond might be a bare minimum for deep collaboration, but in Pacific Rim‘s defense, it does seem to envision memories as largely impressionistic and pre-verbal.

The Russians and the Chinese, are depicted in a deindividuated way. The Russians are tough, silent authoritarians, and the Chinese are complete hive-mind types. Needless to say, both are dispatched rather quickly by the monsters. Here is where Pacific Rim posits an alternative theory to its organicist paradigm. The surviving (and ultimately successful) combinations are not related at all. Instead of organic bonds, they combine as individuals, willing to voluntarily work towards shared ends, but as individuals, not as units of a larger entity. They retain a Western Enlightenment conception of the individual, where the Russians and Chinese were too reliant on their non-Western subjectivities, all centralization and accidents of birth and the Asiatic mode of production, completely subsumed by their hierarchical cultures. Instead, a multiracial and multinational crew wins the day, completely overturning the previous paradigm of biological affinity, and proving the inherent value of the Enlightenment individual and collaboration based on voluntarist association for mutual benefit, not unlike the way it is assumed employment contracts work.

4a. This would simply be a racist-nationalist fable, where the Anglos prevail due to the superiority of their values and culture (Iris Elba, while Black, is British — African Americans are completely erased from the film). Except Mako, the Japanese woman, is a part of the team. What does this mean? Here we see how Japan is able to prove its fitness to be a part of the victorious coalition to the extent that it’s able to adopt Western individualism, embrace a certain level of emotion, and adapt creatively to difficult situations. Pacific Rim is, in the end, about Japan becoming Western.

4b. This is immediately obvious in the scene when Raleigh and Mako first attempt to drift together. Mako’s memories of a kaiju attack overwhelm her; her past trauma, in which her family was killed, threatens to derail the entire plan. Once again we are thrust into that generic overcoding of nuclear war — Mako’s trauma is extremely evocative of a devastating attack on a civilian center that characterized the Allied war against Japan. Poised to set the mech about destroying the base, Mako is shaken out of her trauma by the words of Raleigh: “You have to let go of the memories, just be in the ‘now’.” To work with Raleigh and pilot the jaeger, Mako has to abandon the trauma of the past and the compulsion to repeat. To restate it on an allegorical way: Japan can only work with the U.S. coalition if it can give up and move beyond the past: the past in which the United States used atomic weapons against it. Only by this historical forgetting can Japan prove its fitness for being judged part of the West, else it could up like those failed assimilations the Russians and Chinese. This is essentially how U.S. culture insists everyone relate to history: remember it if you must, but get the fuck over it. The past will only drag you down — you need to exist in the now.

5. So what in the end is the governing metaphor for Pacific Rim? I’ve suggested the film is not about global capitalism, but draws on much earlier, even New-Deal-era, tropes. Yet these films always have a way of sneaking contemporary problems back in in new (or vintage) clothes. What major devastation could Russia, China, the U.S., Japan, and Australia all have to contend with? What problem provokes a massive political and economic restructuring, with its anxieties of job losses? The crisis of global capitalism (and it must be said, weather metaphors are no stranger to this topic) here returns. 

We have an interesting outcome here. Not only do the “centralized” economies of Russia and China fail to weather the catastrophe, but the massive wall proves a failure. It’s actually an incredibly potent image — a massive New Deal-style public works project, but also a wall erected against the unpredictable tumult of the global economy that echoes the walls being built in the U.S. today to prevent immigration. Pacific Rim argues against nativist, isolationist approaches to crisis — like the kaijus, global capitalism batters down all walls, as Marx puts it in the manifesto. Instead, certain competitive inclinations must be put aside — see how destructive Chuck Hansen’s competitive streak is portrayed. 

Here’s where it begins to make sense why the jaeger project is portrayed as a scrappy bootstrapping start up (complete with a scruffy hipster-nerd R&D team). We can’t survive the kaijus by resurrecting the New Deal, but by trying something more appropriately neoliberal (but not libertarian), where government support is subcontracted out to relatively autonomous economic units, who can operate as they see fit, without excessive central oversight. This is in some sense the fantasy of how Japanese capitalism works, but here projected on to a select group of international actors. But also, Pacific Rim throws back the curtain on neoliberal economics tout court, which relies on massive state subsidization of everything from IT infrastructure to research funding to the coordination of global trade and security, far more than the “free markets” or “invisible hands” its ideology traffics in. And in this way, it is the perfect parable for the evolution of neoliberalism after the 2008 crisis. It puts forth a fantasy of a path forward, which preserves the best aspects of Western individualism, techno-capitalism, and authoritarian military structures, while tempering the excesses. Cinema is nothing if not a way to resolve ideologically irreconciliable antimonies, however unstably, and so we see this very interesting, very timely hypothesis of a neoliberal Keynesian with a relatively open racialization as the only solution to the crisis: what a new fascism might resemble. 

Instagram Theory

March 13, 2013

Documentary photography invites and needs participation by amateurs as well as by professionals. Only through the interested work of amateurs who choose themes and follow them can documentation by the camera of our age and our complex society be intimate, pervasive, and adequate.

-Dorothea Lange, 1940

This quotation takes on a bit more insidious cast when it’s transposed from theorizing a New Deal initiative to remarking upon Instagram’s apparent world-historical mission…

Commodity Fetishism is not Branding

February 16, 2013

It’s an unfortunate truism in cultural studies and other disciplines that Marx’s term “commodity fetishism” has something to do with branding. Here is a recent example, though by no means the worst one.

Such an understanding of commodity fetishism has the advantage of making a somewhat complicated concept easy and intuitive, while also flattering the analyst/teacher, who is “too smart” to be tricked by flashy ads. It has the disadvantage of misrepresenting what Marx actually meant.

Fortunately Michael Heinrich’s recently translated An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital takes this up.

The term ‘commodity fetish’ has enjoyed a certain amount of propagation since Marx’s time, but is not always used and understood in a way referring to the phenomena dealt with by Marx. Marx did not use the term ‘commodity fetish’ to describe how people in capitalism place an undue importance upon the consumption of commodities, or that they make a fetish out of particular commodities that serve as status symbols. The term also does not refer to making a fetish of brand names. There is no ‘secret’ behind possessing expensive commodities as status symbols that needs to be deciphered.

It is often the case that the commodity fetish is characterized solely as a state of affairs in which the social relationships between people appear as social relationshops between things (the relationships of those engaged in exchange appear as a value relationship between the products being exchanged), so that social relationships become the property of things. But if we leave it at that, then fetishism appears to be merely a mistake: people ascribe false properties to the products of their labor and fail to see that ‘in reality’ as social relationship between people lies behind the relationship between things. Fetishism would therefore be a form of ‘false consciousness’ that merely conceals the ‘real conditions.’ If that were the case, then this false consciousness must disappear once the real conditions have been explained. In this reductionist conception of the commodity fetish, important points of Marx’s analysis are lost. 

In every social form of production characterized by a division of labor, people stand in a particular social relationship to one another. In commodity production, this social relationship between people appears as a relationship between things: it is no longer people who stand in a specific relationship with one another, but commodities [as exchange values]. People’s social relationships therefore appear to them as ‘socio-natural properties’ of the products of labor: what Marx means can be demonstrated using the example of value: on the one hand it is clear that ‘value’ is not a natural property of things like weight or color, but on the other, for the people in a commodity-producing society, it seems as if things in a social context automatically possess ‘value’ and therefore automatically follow their own objective laws to which humans must submit.

…under conditions of commodity production, producers do not relate to one another in a direct, social way; they first enter into a relationship with one another during the act of exchange — through the products of their labor. That their social relationship to one another appears as a social relationship between things is therefore not at all an illusion.


In other words, the labour of the individual asserts itself as a part of the labour of society, only by means of the relations which the act of exchange establishes directly between the products, and indirectly, through them, between the producers. To the latter, therefore, the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things.

Heinrich continues:

That things have social characteristics under the conditions of commodity production is no way wrong. What is wrong is the assumption that they possess these social characteristics automatically, in every social context. Fetishism does not consist of products of labor being regarded as objects of value — in bourgeois society, products of labor that are exchanged are in fact objects of value — but this objectivity of value is considered a “self-evident and nature-imposed necessity” (Capital, 1:175).

Commodity producers produce their social connection precisely not as a result of a particular awareness concerning the connection between value and labor, but independent of such awareness. It would therefore be completely wrong to understand Marx’s theory of value as claiming that people exchange their commodities according to their values because they know how much labor is contained within the individual products. It is Marx’s intent to show that humans act without being aware of the conditions of their action.

Whether my individually expended labor is recognized as a component of the total labor of society is not information provided to me directly by society, but by the value of my commodity in exchange. And my prosperity or misfortune depends upon this information. But the magnitudes of value of commodities “vary continually, independently of the will, foreknowledge and actions of the exchangers. Their own movement within society had for them the form of a movement made by things, which far from being under their control, in fact control them” (Capital I: 169-70).

The value of commodities is an expression of an overwhelming social interaction that cannot be controlled by individuals. In a commodity-producing society, people (all of them!) are under the control of things, and the decisive relations of domination are not personal but ‘objective.’ This impersonal objective domination submission to inherent necessities,’ does no exist because things themselves possess characteristics that generate such domination, or because social activity necessitates this mediation through things, but only because people relate to things in a particular way — as commodities.

Heinrich then points out that, additionally, it is bourgeois political economy itself (Capital is a critique of political economy) which treats this objective domination as natural.

Commodity fetishism is not really about how brands trick people into thinking commodities are better than they “really” are. Such an analysis still leaves untouched what Marx means by fetishism, which refers to the way in which the exchange of commodities acquire an objective domination — a real, very real domination — over social production. The “Commodity Fetishism=Branding” argument is locked within the point of purchase, ignoring the total social production (“social relations between people”), and instead buying into the idea that commodities have a natural value, albeit in a “negative” way: commodities’ natural value has been obscured by the Nike Swoosh and the price tag that goes with it. The implication is that we must “see through” the fetishized branded commodity so we can see the true value underneath — maybe we would recognize those Nikes are worth a lot less. Sadly, this leaves intact commodity fetishism, because it assumes commodities have a natural value that has merely been altered by branding. This is what began to trouble me about this interpretation: could Marx have really intended for us to merely be better shoppers?

The same problem plagues almost all analyses that start from the point of sale, even putatively Marxist ones: they assume the terms of bourgeois ideology from the outset, and leave the social character of production to the side. As Heinrich states, “If the intentions of social actors (that which they ‘know’) are made the point of departure of analysis (as is the case in neoclassical economics and various sociological theories), then that which individuals ‘don’t know,’ the framework that preconditions their thought and activity, is blanked out of the analysis from the very start” (78). 

Fetishism means that relationships between people — the social relationships of commodity producers, owners, etc. — become naturalized (this is distinct from “objectified” — Marx wouldn’t deny that commodity exchange is an objective fact of capitalism) as commodity exchange, exchange of goods which seem to possess real values independent of social relationships. That you own the factory, and I must work there to earn a wage to purchase the goods I produce seems to be an objective natural fact because commodity production reigns supreme; in reality, this is a relationship that is political and historical, and therefore changeable. 

Walter Benjamin, Diabolical Hater

November 28, 2012

Walter Benjamin going in on the dissident bourgeois poet Erich Kastner:

The metamorphosis of the political struggle from a drive to make a political commitment into an object of contemplative pleasure, from a means of production into an article of consumption, is characteristic of this literature.

But it doesn’t stop there. Benjamin deigns to quote himself (“a perceptive critic”), from “Left Wing Melancholy,” to sum up:

These extreme left-wing intellectuals have nothing to do with the worker’s movement. Rather they exist as the mirror image of that fringe of bourgeois decadence which tried to assimilate itself to feudal strata and admired the Empire in the person of the reserve lieutenant. … Their function, seen from a political point of view, is to form not a Party, but a clique, seen from a literary point of view, not a school but a fad, from an economic point of view not to become producers but agents. Agents or hacks, who make a great show of their poverty and congratulate themselves on the yawning void. It would be impossible to carve a more comfortable position out of an uncomfortable situation.

Instead, Benjamin wanted art that would, by revealing its techniques, destroy the (class) divide between reader and writer. It was praxis, not merely aestheticization of politics (Benjamin would have even stronger words for such a tendency in a later essay). In Benjamin’s estimation, Kastner’s stuff, for all its radical trappings, was still bent on enhancing the author’s prestige in the eyes of his own circle and in the eyes of those he was criticizing.

Adam Smith on the General Intellect

October 20, 2012

Adam Smith understood that the productivity gains in a productive process depended on appropriation of the knowledge of workers, though, like a lot of things, he wants to credit the division of labor:

Men are much more likely to discover easier and readier methods of attaining any object, when the whole attention of their minds is directed towards that single object, than when it is dissipated among a great variety of things. But in consequence of the division of labour, the whole of every man’s attention comes naturally to be directed towards some one very simple object. It is naturally to be expected, therefore, that some one or other of those who are employed in each particular branch of labour should soon find out easier and readier methods of performing their own particular work, wherever the nature of it admits of such improvement. A great part of the machines made use of in those manufactures in which labour is most subdivided, were originally the inventions of common workmen, who, being each of them employed in some very simple operation, naturally turned their thoughts towards finding out easier and readier methods of performing it. Whoever has been much accustomed to visit such manufactures, must frequently have been shewn very pretty machines, which were the inventions of such workmen, in order to facilitate and quicken their own particular part of the work. In the first fire-engines, a boy was constantly employed to open and shut alternately the communication between the boiler and the cylinder, according as the piston either ascended or descended. One of those boys, who loved to play with his companions, observed that, by tying a string from the handle of the valve which opened this communication, to another part of the machine, the valve would open and shut without his assistance, and leave him at liberty to divert himself with his play-fellows. One of the greatest improvements that has been made upon this machine, since it was first invented, was in this manner the discovery of a boy who wanted to save his own labour.

Wealth of Nations


October 18, 2012

This performance of detachment corresponded to one of Himmler’s most perverse convictions, namely that it was possible, while overseeing the slaying of blameless children, women and men, to remain ‘decent’ (anständig). ‘Decency’ was an abiding theme of his letters and speeches. He attributed the stomach pains that plagued him to his untiring efforts to be ‘good and decent’. The ‘decency’ of the SS manifested itself in the priggish honour code that supposedly regulated the daily life of its members, who were informed, for example, that ‘an SS man buys nothing he cannot pay for’ and ‘never buys anything in instalments’, but it also applied to the administration of mass murder, which was to be implemented under the most scrupulous discipline. The idea that SS or police personnel might be stealing watches or jewellery from the people they were killing drove Himmler into a fury. A ‘decent’ killer did his work without relish or the prospect of personal advantage. This, Himmler declared in his notorious ‘Posen speech’ of 1943, was the SS’s greatest achievement: to have seen thousands of corpses ‘lying side by side’, ‘to have coped with this and – except for cases of human weakness – to have remained decent’. 

-Christopher Clark’s review of Peter Longerich’s Himmler biography

A Nice Note from a Former Employer

July 11, 2012

I got a bizarre mailing a little while back from ALTA COLLEGES about my “employee benefits.” It took me a minute to figure out what the hell it was about. When you work for a for-profit, you get your checks from the larger corporation that owns that “brand” among many others, not the actual “school” you work for. I was also confused by the stuff about benefits, since you definitely don’t get those unless you chip in to a 401(k), and you certainly don’t have enough money to do that if you’re adjuncting at one of these places.

Anyway, I figured out it was a place I taught a few classes at in the first six months of 2011. Here’s what they sent me. They had all sorts of confidentiality warnings on it, since it contained “salary [sic] information specific to” me, but I don’t really care if the internet knows I pulled down a few grand at this gig. If you want to know my entire income for 2011, you’ll need a few more W-2’s, friend.

Again, I had to look at this a while, since I was pretty sure I didn’t get any benefits. My contract lasted a 9-week term, after which I could sign another one for the next term, though in reality I often didn’t get my contract until the term was half over. I could cough up for the employee health plan, but at that point I had coverage from the university I’m attending, so I didn’t bother. But I could tell that it was trying to show that I was being “compensated” by the company more than I might have realized — Total Compensation, rather than measures of take-home pay, is a favorite stat of people wanting to try to prove that workers aren’t underpaid.

Then I figured it out: the “company paid benefits” consisted of social security, Medicare, and unemployment. In other words, they are taxes that go into safety net funds that I may or may not draw upon down the road. Taxes, which the company redefined as part of my compensation. Aren’t they generous, paying these taxes as required by law, just for me! Look at that adorable yellow cloud — with these taxes, which are paid to the government, I instantly received a 10% raise! And I hadn’t realized it, simply because I hadn’t a single extra cent in my bank account! So glad these fine folks at Alta Colleges, Incorporated bothered to remind me, a long-gone temporary, with this lavish full-color mailing!

But I had another question — why mail me at all? In part, there’s a bureaucratic lag — since I was always an adjunct, not working doesn’t mean I’ve left the job, it just means I’m in the “pool.” I’m in a state of pure potential. But why mail anyone? Well, I’m no expert on the conditions of my coworkers — teaching means you spend most of your time with students, and very little time (and almost never paid) with other faculty, so I didn’t really know anyone else, and I wasn’t there very long. I did talk to one guy who taught six classes a term, and even then I wondered how he could afford to live in the area. He probably can’t, or can’t afford to live very well in the area.

So here’s his, and my, salve for our gross underpayment and exploitation. We aren’t even thrown a sop of a tiny bonus, or even some bullshit “morale-booster” like an awkward office happy hour. No, we get some propaganda from some newly minted MBAs, cruising on a fresh high of middle-management ideology, who seem thoroughly convinced that if they just present their right-wing talking points on “employee compensation” in a pretty chart, maybe their employees, struggling to house and clothe themselves, will understand how well they’re doing. An additional 10% of My Base Pay — that is fucking benevolence, right here in 21st Century America! Thanks, Alta, for paying your taxes. You’re really doing your part, really going the distance for your workers. I should write a thank-you note to your shareholders. I was such a fucking idiot for quitting because I thought I was underpaid. But that’s the narrow vision of your average employee, right, just concerned about paying rent and buying food. That’s why we’re not management material! If only I had known how well, how fully, you’d been compensating me, I might have stuck around a bit longer, keeping my gripes and my worn-out shoes to myself. As it is, I am secure in the fact that I have a couple hundred bucks coming my way if I can survive another four decades. Why, I can feel the class hatred slipping away now…

Maybe I should call these guys up. I could use the money. Er, the compensation, rather. The money fucking sucks.