Al-Qaida, Batman and the New Vanguardism

After a nine-day vacation in the northeast, mostly to Montreal to see my daughter, I’m back in SF in good health and spirits. Thought I might’ve posted while travelling, but it’s still not so convenient to spend time on-line when away from home. Lots to say about friends and places in the east, but this is to comment on the theme above.

While travelling, I finished RETORT’s Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (Verso: 2005, RETORT is Iain Boal, T.J. Clark, Joseph Matthews, and Michael Watts), and later finished Iain Banks’ novel Complicity (Simon & Schuster: 1993) and saw the summer blockbuster Batman Begins. Curiously, they all three address Vanguardism, but who’d a thunk that ahead of time? Not me!

RETORT sets out to apply a situationist-inspired critical analysis to the historical period denoted by Sept. 11 and the Iraq War. Unlike much of the progressives and lefties around, though, they don’t fall for a simple “Blood for Oil” line of explanation, nor do they spend much time wondering about the veracity of the received story of 9-1-1 (a point that earns them the scorn of some 911 activists). Instead they do a deep and thorough job of contextualizing recent events in the long history of U.S. militarism and empire. They take up many of the arguments offered by ecologists regarding Peak Oil and conclude that this argument (irrespective of whether or not we are halfway through global oil reserves) is a basic Malthusian view, and is itself contradicted by the entire history of the oil industry (one of glut and trying to control prices).

Rather than trying to explain this moment in history as an effect of any one or combination of causes, they see what’s happening as the emergence of a neoliberal militarism that is seeking to facilitate the age-old process of primitive accumulation. That’s a fairly Marxist formulation, but one I readily grasp and agree with. RETORT gives us a mature and literary exposition of an updated situationist critique too, and this is where this book really moves our understanding along.

“Consumerism… promises a world in which possessable and discardable objects do the work of desiring and comprehending for us, forming our wishes, giving shape to our fantasies, making matter signify. There is no mystery to such a vision’s appeal. It plays on a deep (maybe constitutive) human disposition to invest the manipulation of objects with magic power; it offers a solution to a fundamental meaning-deficit in the world as it is… the spectacle… injects its objects with homeopathic doses of “community”, “respect for tradition”, decency, loyalty, tenderness, naivety, eccentricity, caring” in a word, love. The operation is deadly. It travesties the values it cannibalizes… Once upon a time what commodities promised was the future, above all. Now a whole (dominant) class of them exists to invent a history, a lost time of togetherness and stability, that everyone claims to remember but no one quite had. (p. 178-182)

“The spectacle, we have been arguing, is not merely a realm of images: it is a social process” a complex of enforcements and exclusions” devoted to the suppression of social energies, with the imaging and distancing of those energies being only one (among many) of its techniques. The spectacle, that is to say, is deeply (constantly) a form of violence” a repeated action against real human possibilities, real (meaning flexible, useable, transformable) representatinos, real attempts at collectivity.”When a particular node of the spectacle enters into crisis, as we have been saying has happened to the spectacle “Israel”, it is precisely the violence of this process that comes into view. Ultimately,the spectacle comes out of the barrel of a gun. State power informs and enforces it. Mostly that fact is hidden. The spectacle is that hiding. But in the end, when a spectacle agonizes, the guns reappear at every margin of the image-array.” (p. 130-131)

Afflicted Powers
really made me think differently about al-Qaida and Revolutionary Islam. RETORT examines the arrival of “Islamicist terror” and, like Mahmood Mamdani’s Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, unpacks the oversimplification and running together of widely disparate tendencies and behaviors in the billion-strong Islamic world. I’ve tended to see the rise of militaristic Islam as a passing phenomenon, but RETORT takes the opportunity to go further. They argue quite persuasively that al-Qaida is an example of a growing trend, one that accompanies the banalization of daily life under modernism, towards some kind of armed rebellion, one that is equally comprised of refusal and ardent embrace of modernity. Moreover, it is a spectacular rebellion that is the last true believer in virtuality, and has rapidly adapted the technologies of the spectacle to its own ends, thus destabilizing the image-management at the center.

This group has had a lot of years developing a nuanced critique of leftism and its more authoritarian vanguardist variants. So it’s refreshing to have them grudgingly reclaim the label “Left” in one breath while eloquently puncturing the myths and mindsets that fuel vanguardist fantasies in searing prose elsewhere.

“… Nietzsche is very far from dismissing the great fact he is trying to confront: he wishes to understand the purpose” not just the appeal, but the historical function” of the urge to life-denial and self-abnegation that has so dominated humans’ thinking about themselves. The Left should approach al-Qaida in the same spirit” with the words and actions of bin Laden resonating against those of Lenin, Blanqui, Mao, Baader-Meinhof, and Durruti. The vanguard ideal had a function, obviously: its narrowness and secretiveness and merciless instrumentalism in the face of human subjects answered, however distortedly, to a set of actual conditions” possibilties” for reassembling our (always) afflicted Powers.” (p. 173)”What we should like to move toward, ultimately” or at least intimate, at least set out the bare coordinates of” is an opposition to modernity having nothing in common with al-Qaida’s, even while recognizing what it is in modernity that provokes the al-Qaida response. A non-orthodox, non-nostalgic, non-rejectionist, non-apocalyptic critique of the modern: that ought now to be the task of Left politics. Otherwise the ground of opposition to the present will be permanently ceded to one or another fundamentalism…(p. 177)

By some odd coincidence I was reading simultaneously I. Banks’ novel Complicity. It’s a murder mystery that revolves around a lefty, disaffected, drug-abusing journalist in Edinburgh Scotland, and a series of grisly murders of corporate criminals, rapists, and other ne’er-do-wells. Read no further if you want to be surprised by this novel.

It ends by revealing the murderer as a former soldier, former successful businessman, and suddenly moral avenger. He was the journalist’s best friend as a child, and in their final face-off, the former soldier, Andy, lays out the ultimate rationale of taking personal responsibility for the wrongs of the world. He fully accepts that by living he is part of the problem, and to become part of the solution he has murderee a half dozen particularly heinous corporate leaders, militarists, arms merchants, mysognistic pornographers etc.

The vaguely leftish speech was the ultimate statement of the vanguardist, the one who was going to put things right, or at the very least assuage his own conscience for his complicity in a generally barbaric world. Then we went to see Batman, and though a frothy cartoon, and in spite of the vaguely New Deal-ish dead millionaire parents of Bruce Wayne, the basic story depends on the logic of one rigidly stubborn and committed man who will lead the way to making things better through his exemplary action.

There are probably dozens of other ready examples, but these were the three that overlapped during my recent days. The RETORT book makes me feel like Islamic vanguardism is here to stay (for my lifetime anyway) and will take some real creativity and peserverance to overcome its poisonous effects on rebellious organizing. They do point to the simultanous rise of the ‘movement of movements’ since the mid-90s as grounds for limited optimism. Clearly the decentralized and imaginative movements that culminated in 10-15 million marching together in February 2003 against the coming war represent something quite new and exciting on the world (as well as the local) stage. And it is precisely the myriad movements still nascent and percolating invisibly at the base of daily life that can most benefit from the clear-headed analysis offered by RETORT. Let’s hope a lot of people read it!

1 comment to Al-Qaida, Batman and the New Vanguardism

  • Erin

    Just FYI, Chris: Frank Miller’s new graphic novel, in the works now, is called “Holy Terror, Batman!” and is, in fact, about Batman “kicking Al-Qaeda’s ass,” according to the author.

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