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?

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