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. 


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

Marx on the Limits of Insurrectionism

April 2, 2012

The whole way of life of these professional conspirators has a most decidedly bohemian character. Recruiting sergeants for the conspiracy, they go from marchand de vin [wine merchant] to marchand de vin, feeling the pulse of the workers, seeking out their men, cajoling them into the conspiracy and getting either the society’s treasury or their new friends to foot the bill for the litres inevitably consumed in the process. Indeed it is really the marchand de vin who provides a roof over their heads. It is with him that the conspirator spends most of his time; it is here he has his rendezvous with his colleagues, with the members of his section and with prospective recruits; it is here, finally, that the secret meetings of sections (groups) and section leaders take place. The conspirator, highly sanguine in character anyway like all Parisian proletarians, soon develops into an absolute bambocheur in this continual tavern atmosphere. The sinister conspirator, who in secret session exhibits a Spartan self-discipline, suddenly thaws and is transformed into a tavern regular whom everybody knows and who really understands how to enjoy his wine and women. This conviviality is further intensified by the constant dangers the conspirator is exposed to; at any moment he may be called to the barricades, where he may be killed; at every turn the police set snares for him which may deliver him to prison or even to the galleys. Such dangers constitute the real spice of the trade; the greater the insecurity, the more the conspirator hastens to seize the pleasures of the moment. At the same time familiarity with danger makes him utterly indifferent to life and liberty. He is as at home in prison as in the wine-shop. He is ready for the call to action any day. The desperate recklessness which is exhibited in every insurrection in Paris is introduced precisely by these veteran professional conspirators, the hommes de coups de main [men of helping hands]. They are the ones who throw up and command the first barricades, who organise resistance, lead the looting of arms-shops and the seizure of arms and ammunition from houses, and in the midst of the uprising carry out those daring raids which so often throw the government party into confusion. In a word, they are the officers of the insurrection.

And now the good stuff:

It need scarcely be added that these conspirators do not confine themselves to the general organising of the revolutionary proletariat. It is precisely their business to anticipate the process of revolutionary development, to bring it artificially to crisis-point, to launch a revolution on the spur of the moment, without the conditions for a revolution. For them the only condition for revolution is the adequate preparation of their conspiracy. They are the alchemists of the revolution and are characterised by exactly the same chaotic thinking and blinkered obsessions as the alchemists of old. They leap at inventions which are supposed to work revolutionary miracles: incendiary bombs, destructive devices of magic effect, revolts which are expected to be all the more miraculous and astonishing in effect as their basis is less rational. Occupied with such scheming, they have no other purpose than the most immediate one of overthrowing the existing government and have the profoundest contempt for the more theoretical enlightenment of the proletariat about their class interests.


The chief characteristic of the conspirators’ way of life is their battle with the police, to whom they have precisely the same relationship as thieves and prostitutes. The police tolerate the conspiracies, and not just as a necessary evil: they tolerate them as centres which they can keep under easy observation and where the most violent revolutionary elements in society meet, as the forges of revolt, which in France has become a tool of government quite as necessary as the police themselves, and finally as a recruiting place for their own political mouchards [snitches].

Marx in the New German Times, 1850  

I came across this passage, specifically the second paragraph, via Walter Benjamin (who quotes it to describe Baudelaire’s politics) being quoted in Gayatri Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” She quotes it to describe the politics of Foucault and Deleuze.

Tronti on Generational Conflict

March 5, 2012

Those of us who had lived through the struggles of the factory workers in the early 60s looked on the student protests with sympathetic detachment. We had not predicted a clash of generations, though in the factories we had met the new layer of workers—especially young migrants from the South—who were active and creative, always in the lead (certainly compared to the older workers who were exhausted by past defeats). But in the factories, the bond between fathers and sons still held together; it was among the middle classes that it had snapped. This was an interesting phenomenon, but not decisive for changing the structural balance of forces between the classes. At Valle Giulia, in March 68, we were with the students against the police—not like Pasolini. But at the same time, we knew it was a struggle behind enemy lines, to determine who would be in charge of modernization. The old ruling class, the war-time generation, was exhausted. A new elite was pressing forward into the light; a new ruling class for the globalized capitalism that lay in the future.

The remarkable youth of 68 did not understand—nor did we, though we would grasp it soon enough—this truth: to demolish authority did not automatically mean the liberation of human diversity; it could mean, and this is what happened, freedom specifically for the animal spirits of capitalism, which had been stamping restlessly inside the iron cage of the social contract that the system had seen as an unavoidable cure for the years of revolution, crisis and war.

Mario Tronti, “Our Operaismo”

So if we take Tronti’s prescience at face-value, what he already detected during 1968 was intercapitalist competition within generational struggle. With the ambivalence that marks the entire essay, Tronti shows how the Old Fordist CEOs were being challenged by those who would later extract surplus value from Foxconn workers and pageclicks: their children.

employee training

April 23, 2011

Sometimes you learn more than you expect.