Monday, 26 September 2016

Bourne and Form: Why does genre fiction always fail?

Image credit: Wikimedia commons

The Bourne series is almost unique among recent Hollywood films in winning significant critical praise for its marriage of le CarrĂ©-lite intrigue and visceral psychodrama. But the series' most recent outing, titled simply Jason Bourne, has been disappointing. The film met with a broadly muted response and has the lowest critical rating of any of the series on the aggregate site Metacritic. A confession: for my teenage self Bourne made Europe cool. The Bourne films were the first in which I really cared about location. Two things I saw excited me: first, the often faded glamour of central and eastern Europe; and second, the ease with which Bourne slipped between different worlds, always the master of whatever local language he stumbled across. As an amnesiac super soldier, Bourne has the uncanny ability to do things he doesn't know he can, and Damon's famously baffled brow somehow made this unwitting mastery believable. So he would slip unrecognised through the world's customs controls armed only with a fan of fake passports and an apparently polyglot unconscious. Bourne made the rest of the world feel accessible.

But in this most recent outing the characteristic fast-cutting, high-impact action sequences feel merely super-imposed on an exotic background. Regardless of the setting - from a riotous anti-austerity protest in Athens to a sun-baked Las Vegas strip - events take place against a backdrop which is interactive rather than actually alive. Technology is an obvious factor in this evolution of the series: at times the chase scenes resemble sophisticated platform games. But equally important are the conventions of the narrative form itself. The real disappointment of the Bourne series is that the longer it continues, the more completely it must shed the ambiguities which made its early premise compelling.

In the Bourne films women are either peripheral office-dwellers whose characters can be quietly discontinued (Pamela Landy, played by Joan Allen in the earlier movies) or, if they are involved in the hunt at all, they die (love interest Franka Potente and erstwhile ally Julia Stiles). Women are hard to feature in the lone wolf drama except as marginal accomplices or sexualised sidekicks. The uneasy presence of women in the series is not down to a lack of imagination on the part of the writers, but is a symptom of the lone wolf form itself. Political ambivalence or contradiction in the series is symptomatic of what the Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson calls the ideology of form. Jameson in his The Political Unconscious views narrative as a "socially symbolic act" or a way of endowing the mute substance of the world with meaning. In Bourne the narrative constructs a central semiotic opposition between personal identity - namely, Bourne's own subjectivity - and the social whole - represented by its guardians in the headquarters of the CIA at Langley. Yet this binary can be unpacked. While Bourne the subject represents personal identity and its quest for freedom/moral responsibility, Bourne the agent has already sacrificed his personal identity for the perceived good of a greater social whole. Meanwhile, the representatives of that social whole feature in two forms - those who are "handmaidens" of the social good and those who have been corrupted by power. Each position in this square stands in a relation of conflict with the others. Thus, Bourne does not simply become one with the social whole by relinquishing his individuality. In fact, he becomes a dehumanised agent of the forces of corruption. However, the problem remains that if Bourne simply reasserts his personal autonomy - his individual freedom - he is simultaneously turning his back on the "greater good." It is at this point that narrative form steps in with a solution.

At the end of the series' most recent instalment Bourne stands revealed as an unconventional patriot, with the suggestion that he will maintain his new-found personal conscience whilst assisting the compromised forces of the CIA in his own, independent way. The strictures of the form impose a certain type of closure on the narrative, and it is one that redeems both the individual and, by extension, the notion of a greater social good. Jameson stresses how form enables the construction of "imaginary solutions to real social contradictions." If in everyday life we find that notions of personal identity conflict with the good of the social whole, form finds a way of reconciling them. At the beginning of the saga Bourne is the victim of a mistaken reduction of individual self-sacrifice to the social good: he has sacrificed himself, his ethical autonomy, to the secretive "Blackbriar" project, which is in fact run by corrupt CIA elites. He must now rescue himself by vanquishing the elites' power over his identity and reclaiming his identity and autonomy. But this leaves open the question of his own need to serve the social good. The lone wolf narrative presupposes a certain kind of solution: Bourne can escape his own alienation by casting himself as a patriot-beyond-the-law. The most recent film ends with the suggestion that he will serve the law virtuously but not be reduced to the status of a law-abiding citizen.

This throws up a series of problems with regards to place, gender, and politics. If the real drama of Bourne focuses on the struggle between the individual and the social whole, the collective dramas of place are necessarily reduced to backdrops against which the real events take place. The subjectivity of the lone wolf is necessarily male, with "honest" brokers between Bourne and the law played by women (Allen in the earlier films, Alicia Vikander in the latest). The male hero cannot simply be reincorporated into the level playing field of the law, in which all are equal and therefore identical before the law's universal judgement. So Bourne remains above the law, outside of the social whole, but with the power to act on it and for its own good. The passivity of the social whole is here metaphorically feminine, with the masculine role one of mastery and action. The social good, meanwhile, is that perceived ethical substance which underlies the rabid corruption of the law's human representatives. Despite the corruption of those in charge, Bourne shows no interest in exposing them to the wider public. He has no time for whistle-blowers or hackers or internet freedom fighters. By the end of the most recent instalment in the series Bourne resembles a superhero-like figure: he is tasked with standing beyond the law, a lone individual, intent on saving the law from itself by his own special means. His enemies are those tempted by the eternal lure of power and/or personal greed. Thus, the conclusion implies that Bourne's earlier search for identity was just a prelude to his real story as unambiguous defender of authentic American values against a sea of corruption.

The early movies in the franchise were enjoyable precisely because they were the initial instalments in a series which was as yet unfinished. If we were to know the entirely predictable conclusion in advance we wouldn't like them. \bourne is not unique in the respect. Almost all episodic fiction that starts off well ends badly. This continual disappointment of episodic genre fiction - fantasy, sci-fi, detective thrillers and so on - is not simply down to creative exhaustion. It is a fundamental limitation of a form which, however exploratory or ambiguous the initial premises, must result in certain kinds of resolution. In short, we are disappointed by an inevitable happy ending which is nevertheless demanded by the form. This raises a question, which I will attempt to answer below, about why modern audiences are almost always disappointed by conventional endings and yet narrative fiction is for the time being unable to provide alternatives.

Fredric Jameson argues that individual texts resolve their inner systems of binary oppositions by formulating a political allegory or "ur-narrative." In the case of Bourne we have the allegory of the struggle to preserve individuality and personal autonomy in a morally compromised world. But the discovery of this political allegory brings us to the limits of what Jameson describes as the "first concentric circle" of criticism and to the borders of a second. In the second field of criticism texts are reconstructed not as containers of semiotic systems of meaning, but as carriers of "ideologemes" - that is, elements of class-based ideology. In the Bourne series the conflict between the individual and society is not bridged by an alteration to society as such but rather by the individual's elevation above that society. Bourne is the ideal capitalist subject, a master of blind social forces, able to bend them to his will in the name of a greater social good. Despite the early ambiguities of the series, in which institutions in an advanced capitalist society are open to question, the social good is in the end reaffirmed as identical with the interests of US power. At this level of analysis an alternative, anti-capitalist narrative is obvious: Bourne could side with the anarcho-utopians and hackers against the dominant institutions of US power in an ongoing battle for his own soul and the liberation of others.

Why would such an outcome not work at the level of narrative itself? Why does the suggestion that Bourne's heroism be converted into an anti-capitalist liberation project feel so inherently ridiculous? It is at this point that Jameson's third and final circle of critical analysis makes its appearance. At this final level of analysis, the text is constructed as an expression of cultural struggles within an overarching mode of production. This latter is a Marxist term used to locate in a single concept all of the dominant and subaltern categories through which social life is organised. The capitalist mode of production, for example, is dominated by modes of organisation of social labour, elaborate systems of social and private property rights, the coercive reinforcement of political power through the state, appropriate forms of political representation, and specific forms of cultural production. Nevertheless a mode of production is not hermetically sealed, but contains traces and anticipations of past and future modes of production within itself. The coexistence of rival sign systems within a mode of production creates a dialectical struggle which plays out in culture. Form is therefore the property of a given mode of production. In Jameson's analysis form itself becomes a kind of content - the ideological expression of the mode of production to which it belongs.

Marxist critics are famously obsessed with history, and Jameson believes that it is ultimately to history that texts owe their authority. As a Marxist critic Jameson believes certain texts are more adequate to the demands of history than others. Some texts reinforce the status quo while others challenge it. The literary critic Hayden White has noted the parallels between Jameson and Jean-Paul Sartre in the way that both see life as being "worked up into a story" via its connection to the past and its projection into the future. For Jameson "the human adventure" must be one continuous tale "sharing a fundamental theme." The Marxist critic restores the buried continuity of a "single master narrative" to the surface of the text. Where there is a weakening of narrativizing capacity in the cultural production a particular social group, we find evidence of social crisis. Bourne is interesting not because the narrative form itself is in crisis, but because its resolutions cannot help but feel inherently false. The fact that the conclusion of the latest instalment in the series feels so inadequate says less about the series itself than an underlying crisis of narrative representation. As is often remarked, Jason Bourne is not James Bond. In fact Bond is never really confronted with any of Bourne's ethical and moral dilemmas. 

This comparison of the Bourne and Bond series provokes a question. Would it be possible to endlessly re-stage the first Bourne film in the same way that each episode in the Bond series is essentially a re-staging of all the others? Of course, Bourne's permanent entrapment in a world where his own identity was forever undisclosed, where his past and future were permanently withheld, would land the audience in the world of the absurd. Precisely because it is a form which constructs a connection with the past, and projects identity into the future, Bourne must resolve its story into a formal conclusion. The crisis consists in the fact that the old resolutions are historically inadequate, while the possibility of an alternative form is yet to be born. The real ultimatum is this: should narrative fiction "come to terms" with this lingering sense of dissatisfaction or seek to overturn it?

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Labour "moderates" don't understand why they're losing again

Tom Watson, Labour's own Ser Gregorstein?
Credit: Rob Knight, Wikimedia Commons

How has the Labour "mainstream" reacted to a second impending defeat in the Party, and its fourth consecutive electoral defeat (to Corbyn twice within the party and under both Ed Milliband and Gordon Brown in successive general elections)? Almost to a man (they are mostly men) they have stared into the abyss and blinked. 

Labour is an irrelevance. We know it is irrelevant because it's in the news every day and they all keep saying that it's irrelevant. The entire media is ghoulishly drawn to, even obsessed with, Labour's irrelevance, its stinking awful shitness. One person who is especially sure that Labour is an irrelevance is Blair lackey and stalwart of the "modernising" faction Alastair Campbell. He is so sure of this that he keeps cropping up in the media to blame "the posh boy revolutionaries" who are "pulling the strings" of Labour and, of course, to plug the release of his latest diaries. I only mention these diaries because they cover the years after his ejection from Tony Blair's government, when he was revealed as personally responsible for the "dodgy dossier" that sanctioned the Iraq War. The diaries end with Blair's 2005 pyrrhic victory on one of the lowest turnouts ever, with millions of working class voters deserting Labour. But of course none of the resulting squalor is Campbell's fault.

Campbell is someone who once - disastrously - pulled the strings of power himself. He should know it when he sees it. And those he accuses of being "posh boy revolutionaries" - i.e. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell - are clearly pulling few strings. In this grinding war of attrition, it is quite clear the power lies not with the leader but forever elsewhere. Each time activists and members take a step towards making party structures fairer, more transparent or more democratic, the locus of power shifts, and new decisions emanate from some previously unseen compartment of the machine. 

There is a nice visual metaphor for  the amorphous, diffuse nature of power and it occurs every time someone takes a photo of Tom Watson. There is one famous photo of the Labour Deputy giving a wry side-eye to Jeremy Corbyn at some event in "happier times." Watson does much the same when he sits alongside Corbyn in Parliament. He wears an inscrutable, strangely assured smile aimed at no one and nothing in particular, hands clasped angelically across his front. This is the inscrutability of power made flesh. As Michel Foucault said, power is everywhere and nowhere at once. It can't be dissected and labelled. More specifically, when power is located it morphs into something else, manifests itself in other channels.

Watson looks like a mere old school fixer, a crooked hangover from the age of the "organisation man." Even his burly demeanour somehow suggests the 1970s. He'd fit perfectly into a world of grubby meetings in pre-fab office blocks, all drooping blinds and the smell of stale smoke. But that smile and the vaguely artificial sheen of his face distinguish him slightly from the knuckle-dragging Labour right. He is more insidious - gliding through Labour's internecine strife, never breaking a sweat. Das Gleitende: that which slides, moves, slips. That which cannot be pinned down.

Given Watson's peculiarly contradictory position - as the embodiment of a form of power which is itself diffuse, porous, disembodied - it is unsurprisingly difficult to grasp his own stance on matters Labour. Nor is anything he says of much interest in itself: “I thought [Corbyn] would realise that to lose the confidence of 80% of your MPs means that you can’t lead the Labour party," he told a Guardian journalist. This thought, so plain and out of context as to be almost empty of significance, is only betrayed by Watson's own reputation as the ultimate Labour deal broker. It was after all Watson who triggered Blair's resignation by quitting the front bench. If he is reminded of those machinations now, he is not letting on. Watson talks through his plans for Labour as if they were technical fixes to a faulty engine, but they are all ultimately political and amount indeed to a return to exactly the kind of situation where his own resignation could bump off the likes of Tony Blair. The real enemy appears to be the "disastrous" outbreak of one-member-one-vote democracy in the Party. Recently Tom Watson lost his cool, just for a moment, when his tongue got in the way of his grammar and he spoke of "Trotsky entryists" "caucusing and factionalising and putting pressure where they can, and that's how [they] operate." This rare clunkiness suggests Watson is struggling to make the picture fit. The ultimate backstage Brownite fixer, whose own head contains the blueprints for a root and branch rewrite of Party rules, wants to criticise others for their factionalising.

Watson will either outlive us all or be felled in combat - perhaps to rise again, like some parliamentary Ser Gregorstein, to defend his MPs from rampant cultists. But he will become so toxic in the process that eventually he will be marginalised, reduced to what his burly form portends - the mere fixer, the oafish brawler, the walking wrecking ball.

Yet even for the most reflective of "moderates" the Labour story takes the form of tragedy. And with the tragic form come definite ideological inflections: a narrative based on fatally flawed heroes is limited to accounts of individual quirks and failings. Beyond that lies merely the cosmos, vast and uncontrollable. There can be no deeper or more thorough explanation. So, for Jason Cowley, editor at the New Statesman and fellow traveller of the Blair years, Labour's Golden Generation - all white, male Oxbridge graduates, all expertly picked by Tony himself - fell on the swords of their own arrogance. "In 2000, everything seemed set fair for the Golden Generation. Nothing could stop them from dominating public life for decades to come. Apart from one another, as it turned out."

Well, the scene is set for some fratricidal bloodletting. Yet for Labour moderates there is scant catharsis. To briefly survey the scene at curtain fall: David Miliband lies skewered by his own Brussels-regulated banana; Ed his "quasi-Marxist" brother drowned in a sea of unfeeling, professorial wonkery; the other, rounder Ed has morphed into a cool dad, a real life David Brent, his frustrated, under-appreciated higher functions channeled into fumbling footwork on Strictly.

It is necessary to restate what a total, catastrophic failure these people have been. Not only from a leftist point of view but also by their own standards. David Miliband ran for Labour leader - too late - and lost. His brother won and then lost the following general election. Balls came third in the leadership election then lost his parliamentary seat. Burnham failed to win the Labour leadership twice and now wants to be mayor of Manchester, to no one's great enthusiasm. Insofar as an explanation is given - by Campbell or Cowley or anyone else - it is simply that Labour grew too brash, too self-confident, too distant from the electorate. This, mind you, was a deliberate choice - a simple mistake, a quirk of personality and/or natural exhaustion. Presumably the solution is to redo the whole thing as before but this time at less distance from the electorate. In the impoverished imagination of the Labour moderate, who has discounted from the beginning any serious redistribution of wealth, power or control, this new closeness to the electorate can mean only one thing: bashing immigrants. Except they forget: Blair and then Brown and then Milliband did that. And they still lost votes.

David Miliband has announced today the real cause of Labour's crises: not accidents, he says sagely, but "choices" - a whole series of them - got them where they are. This accident/choice opposition (brother Miliband is aware of the great philosophical debates after all) sets the scene for some glorious Blairite cadence, as he swings like a pendulum between clanging abstractions:

"Some of [the choices] have been small, others large, but together they have turned the party inwards rather than outwards, looking to the past rather than to new ideas, resting on easy rhetoric rather than taking hard decisions – and above all seeking to distance ourselves from our time in government, rather than building on it, in terms of both policy content and political culture and dynamic."

Doesn't it send shivers down your spine? This is the sort of nonsense Blair once cultivated, a toned down version of which he sometimes slipped in to his speeches or amplified for the purposes of pleasing 'Marxism Today' readers. There's nothing wrong with binaries, of course, but just look at them in isolation and it's like a nursery school sing song - small/large, inwards/outwards, new/old, easy/hard and so on. This say-what-you-see list is the quality of thought we have come to expect from Labour's best and brightest. 

Underlying David M's rhetoric is the simple proposition that people make choices and sometimes they are bad ones. Now, in the context of a spiralling debate on the nature of structure and agency, this statement of the obvious might chime with clarity. But that is not what we have and it is not what it does. Rather this bald presupposition is the sum of David's thinking on the subject and it provides what little theoretical framing he gives to his swooping rhetoric. In the end he comes across as a chiding uncle, the spinner of home truths you've heard a thousand times before.

These are not stupid people. They were indeed the future once. Many were expensively and no doubt effectively schooled. Some have demonstrated, in their time, a more cunning grasp of the cogs of a media-dominated democracy than Jeremy Corbyn ever has. Mandelson is possibly more post-Marxist in his strategic thinking than McDonell. All of which suggests that their inability to think their own predicament through is a symptom in the Freudian sense. There are things that hide in plain sight. For people outside the situation the explanation is obvious. But for all their detective work the Labour moderates are incapable of recognising the clues as clues. So the explanation - their own retreat from democracy; the systematic erasure of party politics from daily social life by neoliberal political practice; the crisis of social democracy and representative politics across the west - eludes them. In the structure/agency debate they should be having, the Blairites are those who made history, but not in conditions of their own choosing. Those conditions have overtaken them. They are histories' dupes - the more foolish for believing they could keep abreast of its wave. 

Monday, 12 September 2016

The Tories Can Be Beaten on Grammar Schools

Ignoring the manufactured controversy over selective education (comprehensives have been a startling academic success, grammar schools not), there is decent residual opposition to the expansion of educational selection. In August a poll by YouGov gave the expansion of grammar schools 38 percent support. Almost every party in parliament is officially opposed to the idea. Despite suffering underfunding and competition from the private sector, the comprehensive system remains the best option for most children.

Consequently a split is emerging in the Tory Party between grammar-loving traditionalists and modernisers. It could be that the grammar plan is a feint by May to keep Brexiters on side. Or it might be genuine: she has promised to see it through, despite cabinet opposition. The former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan took to Facebook to declare, “The evidence is now incontrovertibly clear that a rigorous academic education does not need to be the preserve of the few.” The Telegraph reports that one unnamed senior cabinet minister felt the Tories had too small a majority for such a confrontation. The Tory party chairman too has voiced concern.

These may be sage words. Theresa May is in danger of significantly overplaying a weak hand. You wouldn't know it from the media, but May is only Prime Minister on the back of a catastrophic miscalculation by her hapless predecessor and an ensuing internal party stitch up. Even this remarkable string of events was the outcome of years of failure on everything from the budget deficit to productivity to immigration. The Tories are a weak governing party, a fact that the opposition only began exploiting properly last year.

Internal Tory splits over whether to pursue further academisation and the opening of more free schools or to go back to the sepia-toned days of high Tory grammars may not look like fertile ground for the left. Significantly the driving force of academisation in the last government, Michael Gove, may support May on the policy. Yet if divisions do continue, Labour will have ample space to exploit them for its own ends.

Last year, with the glow of the Tories' election victory still fresh, the new government's spending plans for the parliamentary period were revealed by a coalition of activists, politicians, and lords to be a scam - a way to further grind down the poor in order to make the Tories look tough on the deficit. George Osborne's spending plans - along with his lofty ambitions to be PM - were crushed. Key to this process was a Labour opposition leadership finally willing to fight the Tories on principle.

Despite the widespread good vibes about May emanating from much of the media, the Tories are not in a substantially better position now. Indeed the trouble is worse after Brexit. The Tories are good at image. The media - and some of the middle class - laps up their centrist poise. But the substance remains the same: they are woefully outdated, intellectually poorly equipped, and badly prepared for the tumultuous country they must now govern.

Labour needs to weaponise Tory divisions over policies like May's grammar school expansion. Just as they did last year, when billions in cuts to the poorest were avoided, Labour can help scupper Tory plans by exploiting their weaknesses.