Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Cultural Communism

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In her seminal analysis of Adolf Eichmann’s trial for crimes against the Jewish people, Hannah Arendt contrasts the Israeli government’s extrajudicial extraction of Eichmann from Argentina with that of the extrajudicial assassinations of Talaat Bey and Simon Petlyura, by Shalom Schwartzbard and Soghomon Tehlirian respectively, who protested the difficulty of seeking justice over state-sanctioned genocide against their peoples through the most efficacious means suggested (I forget by whom) of disobedience of unjust laws: One must break them and then demand to be punished for said transgression. She argued that the inherent justice in their actions (and subsequent acquittals) was due to the fact that they at the time had no state representative judiciary who could try their case through proper means, and thus put themselves at risk of trial unlike the Israeli agents who kidnapped Eichmann. In this she made a point about the Israeli government’s conduct of the trial – but not its result or their competence to try it – as to the statement however wittingly or otherwise it made about the nature of legal and political representation of a people, as compared to a nation, and the implications therein.

I found that this above other points she made diverged fundamentally from my worldview, for a conceptual reason of jurisdiction. If admission to the international stage of humanity – the existing “comity of nations” – and thus true protection of human rights requires a self-governing homeland, for which all those historically, ethnically, linguistically and culturally linked draw their political representation from – which is to say, the power of ethnic Russians in the Ukraine, for instance, stems from Russia, not their proportion or protection in the Ukrainian polity – then I am, have been, and will always be stateless. Or, rather, I’ve been by circumstance forced to develop a worldview which depends on a different font of support, not unlike traditional Marxist concepts of class consciousness: The rich seek to stay rich, the middle classes seek to become rich, and the proletariat, seeing no means of becoming rich for such a goal is far too distant even to comprehend, seeks equality for all.

This stems from the fact that the Cherokee Nation will never be a nation, for after all it cannot even determine its own citizenry, that power being granted solely from the United States Government’s adherence to their own census, the Dawes Rolls. Indeed, since there is an economic incentive to limit their own numbers in the form of federal subsidy and grants, the leadership of the current beneficiaries of such a system jealously guard induction to preposterously low populations and therefore neuter their own existence. This is also largely the case of Black America, in the sense that the connection with contemporary African societies is quite distant culturally, yet exist as the Ur-minorities in the American polity – a colonized people within the nation’s own homeland. Save for the craziness that was and is Liberia (though unlike us they did elect a female President), the only way forward is to enforce the American Great Experiment of eliminating “minority status” as codified in so many European societies for so long both politically and socially.

By definition, and thanks to being of mixed heritage, I have no choice but to come out against ethno-nationalism in all its forms, for it does not and cannot represent me in any way, and an international stage in which it is dominant is one that will eventually seek to destroy me. Arguably, my very existence is dependent on a system that has already eschewed such a social format and thus is the prime example of, and the largest proponent of, a system that is at least on paper ethnically and culturally neutral. That is to say, I see only one way forward, and that is to continue the Great Experiment because I depend on it, which means not only must I combat any and all administrations that attempt to define the country by ethnic or cultural lines but also must combat any and all who would seek to dismantle the administration for its failure to adhere to any one of a number of economic and political precepts, for this administration is the only one of its kind. Which is to say, I must oppose radical Marxists, even if I am a radical Marxist, for I cannot trust human tribalism not to rear its ugly head during an interregnum.

That presents a philosophical problem, for as Communism is a doctrine that many pundits, like those who would defend modern American Conservatism, argue has never failed because it had never been tried – that Communism has not failed, only that we have failed Communism – so too does this paint me in the corner that radical change is not only bloody and risky – as most radical reform results in disaster, both in the short and long term – and puts me in the direct firing line, thus I oppose it, but that it also means that under any other circumstance my political stance would also by definition be directly reflective of those circumstances and not the position I hold now, which would be a hard thing to argue to others not in my specific position should I seek allies. I am become an anti-tribal tribalist.

But then so too do minorities flock to cities such to the point that cities exist in their own social and political universe apart and distinct from the nation-state as a whole, which only means that, in my personal worldview, I’ve come full circle that my current state of existence – a mixed-blood minority in an ethnically-diverse city in a polyglot nation – is and has always been a mere blip in the long run of humanity, and that the circumstances that led to my existence have only cropped up a few times in history and then only briefly. If history is linear, I have much to fear. If history if cyclical, and it has every indication of being so, present administration included, then all I need to do is eat and die as me.

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  • Published: Apr 6th, 2017
  • Category: Media
  • Comments: 1

Ghost in the Shell

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Setting aside for a moment the obvious charges of whitewashing, the controversy of which I can only hope hurts Paramount Pictures in the box office as much as that recent execrable Matt Damon flop of a movie, there are essentially two criteria by which to assess Scarlett Johansson’s lead in Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell: Its quality in comparison to Shirow Masamune’s seminal manga series and Mamoru Oshii’s classic anime feature film, and its worth as a stand-alone science fiction film. It fails miserably on both counts. There will be spoilers in this review, but nothing can spoil it more than what they did to themselves.

The cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction contains artistic works that have common themes – subversion of representational government power by corporate power, technological and cybernetic advancements that outpace and exceed regulatory authority or societal understanding, dense and sprawling urbanization – and are generally musings as to the nature of individualism and humanity in a world with fewer political and economic rights, a restructuring or revisionism of cultural touchstones, and constant contact with otherness. The story it wants to tell goes back to the heart of speculative fiction as a reaction to a world that is changing, and can reach topics such as corporate ethics and asymmetric warfare in Alien and Aliens, labor and civil rights in Blade Runner, and identity and trans-humanism in 1995’s Ghost in the Shell.

“Theme,” however, may be the wrong term, as a “theme” can be a backdrop without reasoning or justification behind it. Star Wars, at heart, doesn’t require its setting to tell its story and doesn’t particularly gain from it except such as to present lovely visual backdrops for what is essentially a very common story. That is why it is dubbed a “space opera,” and animes such as Cowboy Bebop are called “space westerns.” Just as noir had common themes of neorealism, expressionism and morality in an uncaring and often-times hostile world, making it prime for police procedurals, detective thrillers and gangster films, it’s used more nowadays as an allusion to certain stylistic options – dark and smokey interiors, stark backlighting, et cetera – than the ideas underneath.

1989’s manga and 1995’s movie contained thoughts on consciousness and individual identity if all of one’s body is mass manufactured – protagonist Major Motoko Kusanagi at one point spies a salarywoman with the exact same face, body and hair as her, and muses on reinventing herself – in a Japanese society for which dolls retain strong cultural importance, and which also has concerns about cultural identity under internationalist corporate hegemons supported by technology, a concern even today when “helper robots” are being developed partly because they are more amenable to a very insular people than immigrant labor. In the manga and anime, the Major works in a counter-cyberterrorism paramilitary police force where almost everybody has significant mechanical prosthetics either in part or in full, and whose aim is largely that of social stability, often in the face of foreign incursion or influence – many of the antagonists are seen as either Russian agents, American moguls, armed refugees of foreign wars, terrorists and the like – but the overarching ‘villain,’ so to speak, in the original manga series and the 1995 movie is a virus devoted to industrial and political espionage and manipulation crafted by an internal (and rival) military division for the purposes of influencing international relations that has gone rogue, achieved self-identity, and requested asylum, leading questions as to the nature of life and sentience.

The 1995 movie, its sequel, 2004’s Ghost in the Shell: Innocence, also directed by Mamoru Oshii, and the television series Ghost in the Shell: Stand-Alone Complex were incredibly dense with the characters’ philosophizing about such issues while also dealing with problems unique to the setting: mental disorders in an age of always-online consciousnesses, the ability to copy and implant memories and entire identities into surrogates both human and entirely synthetic, and scenarios there-in.

2017’s Ghost in the Shell eschews all that, and thereby solves the problem of perhaps being overly dense by being unconscionably dull. It reduces ideas to mere style, confuses reference with inference, and in doing so it says to me that the art that it portrays is intellectually, culturally and morally bankrupt. To add insult to injury, and there is great injury here, the movie itself is rife with one-dimensional protagonists and supporting characters, run through with massive plot holes, advances its plot by forcing its leads to make wanton and brazenly stupid decisions, and rejects any hallmark of the genre for a paint-by-numbers revenge plot that is as hypocritical as it is predictable. It, like Spike Lee’s 2013 remake of Korean thriller Oldboy, is the aping of a superior film by a so-called fan of the work while somehow missing everything that made the film worthwhile.

Mamoru Oshii’s Major Motoko Kusanagi was a contemplative, intelligent, supremely competent and capable female protagonist who had proper working relationships with her team, was raised almost all her life in a full-body prosthesis thanks to Japan’s legendary healthcare and thus inducted into what are essentially Special Forces due to her familiarity and skill with the body she possesses, and also possessed understandable concerns, interests and goals. Rupert Sanders’ Major, who for two thirds of the film went by some white name in deference to Scarlett Johansson’s white face, was a headstrong, reckless ball of anger who gave cursory lip-service to her status but otherwise treated herself as a Marvel Comics superheroine – perhaps because Johansson is already experienced at playing Black Widow for the current crop of schlock blockbuster action flicks – foregoing her team and getting herself captured at every turn, and murdering security guards, random thugs and basically anybody who looks askance at her with abandon. Once finding out that she is actually the brainwashed result of Evilcorp’s kidnapping and experimentation with a waifish Japanese street urchin named Motoko Kusanagi, Scarlett Johansson’s character can’t actually come around to call herself by that name, because perhaps even the actress is somewhat embarrassed by the stark contrast. She all but destroyed a strong female role, and in the most narratively simplistic copout.

The scenery is a pastiche of cyberpunkish stylistic touchstones of an urbanity devoid of any understanding of urban planning – indeed one area is simply called the “lawless zone” – or how anybody would feasibly live in such a city, which is something that the manga, television series and anime movies went out of their way to portray. The 2017 live-action movie attempts to shoehorn no less than four set-pieces from the 1995 movie, but without the context or competence displayed in the original, and to make matters worse, Mamoru Oshii’s trademark basset hound was also copied wholesale, in a stunning theft of artistic watermarking that makes me openly wonder whether the current producers actually understood what they were doing.

For the aped scenes, on every level is the point missed: In the 1995 movie, the Major finds herself hopelessly outgunned by a walking tank, but her motivation for being there – it’s guarding her target – and her actions in combating it – taking advantage of positioning to attack the vehicle it’s guarding, targeting weak points and forcing it to waste its ammunition, attempting to open its hatch to unhook its human pilot – denote a motivation as well as a strategy to actually overcome the problem. In the 2017 movie, the tank remains, as is the Major’s target, but the Major is already in possession of the target and thus has no reason not to retreat, and has no strategy to disable it except for firing wildly with a small-calibre weapon and pointlessly fiddle with the hatch as the tank is remotely controlled. The action remains, the thought behind it having been wholly excised and replaced with blind rage.

Similarly, her boss Aramaki in the manga and anime is a shrewd, responsible political strategist who does not put himself or his team in danger without a full plan in effect. His goals and the Major’s occasionally conflict, but they are understandable from his point of view and the means in which he works towards them are intelligent. In the live-action movie he passively allows all comers to dictate the parameters of his department, such to the point where he has no control over his subordinates and even allows a direct assassination attempt on his own person for no gain, just so a scene can be shown where he heroically saves himself. It is, I suppose, a testament to an American producer’s translation of this Japanese work that, like our current political climate, all characters are fundamentally incapable of acting competently and are thus forced for the vast majority of the film merely to react.

But far from the base flaws in filmmaking for which the producers attempted to hide behind a gloss of technical tinsel, and far from the complete misunderstanding of the setting, the format, and the characterization, the greatest sin that this movie has managed is that, as a science fiction film, it asks no questions and offers no ideas. Its characters aren’t just dumb by comparison, they are dumb, and seem content to remain that way forever. I watched this movie in IMAX 3D in a nearly empty theatre in Kip’s Bay, and had my eyes closed for a third of the film, for I could no longer bear to witness what was before me. It hurt me to watch this film, and I feel ashamed that I chose to do so, for I knew better, and now I have nobody but myself to blame for how I feel right now.

White Flight

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A personal narrative I thought was more or less substantively true, one that was promoted by the last three mayors or so of the phoenix-like resurrection of New York City from a den of sin and depravity to a modern, crisp, attractive destination, is the effective reversal of decades of White Flight – the domestic emigration of middle-class white families and their tax base due to racism, from federal subsidies for home ownership in newly-constructed yet segregated suburban townships to overt red-lining covering entire districts straight on from the LaGuardia administration in the 30s and 40s. The narrative, it goes, is that once violent crime started going down in the Dinkins administration straight on to historic lows in the Bloomberg administration in the new millennium, domestic immigration of the white, taxpaying types started up again, revitalizing – and gentrifying – neighborhoods en masse, such as Williamsburg and Park Slope. Indeed, Amanda Burden the former commissioner for the Department of City Planning under former mayor Bloomberg was an avowed cheerleader of gentrification, and indeed volunteered her rather contemptuous opinions of current mayor de Blasio’s emphasis on affordable housing – after all, her doctrine was more on real estate values, which meant getting the ‘right people’ into those houses, not getting the right houses for the existing people.

I say “thought” and not “think” because, despite this narrative, White Flight never ended. According to the US census, the non-Hispanic white population of New York peaked in 1940 – the first year the city differentiated between Hispanic and non-Hispanic white people – at 6.8 million out of a total New York population of 7.4 million. It’s at this time that the red-lining efforts were mostly discussing an “infiltration” – the actual term on analytic documents of the time – of undesirable Greeks, Jews, Italians and Irish, as there were only half a million Black residents and only 150,000 people of Hispanic descent. For the narrative to be completely true, one would imagine that the white population would have bottomed out in the 1990 or 2000 census, and then seen an uptick since then. However, between 1990 and 2010, a further loss of 450,000 white residents of New York was still tallied – the last census has the lowest number of white residents in 70 years of unbroken decline at 2.7 million out of a total of 8.1 million, meaning that while the city on the whole only gained ~700,000 people between 1940 and 2010, the non-Hispanic white proportion of the city went from being 92% of the total to 33% of the total… and is still falling, both in ratio and in raw numbers, though perhaps not as fast as it once was.

There is some weight to the narrative of yuppies moving into certain gentrified neighborhoods – aside from Manhattan, Brooklyn is the only borough that saw an increase in the white population between 2000 and 2010, gaining about 40,000 (for an equal loss in the Black population of Brooklyn, which statisticians have argued represents a trend in which they’re leaving the area entirely due to high cost of living and relatively low employment rates and remuneration, rather than a white population that simply relocates to the suburbs) which lends support for a narrative of population replacement, though the city itself noted that domestic emigration, not immigration, remained paramount, and that population numbers were buoyed by childbirth, longevity and international immigration, so those broad statistics can be interpreted in part by the relatively high childbirth rates of orthodox Jewish communities in South Williamsburg and Borough Park as much as homesteading by white yuppies in Park Slope and Carroll Gardens.

There is also a more holistic interpretation in that the city is and has always been an entrepot of international humanity, which it then disseminated to the rest of the nation, in which case the truth hidden in the statistical data of a declining white population is that in the first half of the century the largest batch of immigrants were white though of Catholic and southern European heritage, who then flocked to Yonkers and New Jersey and Long Island, and that nowadays the largest batch of immigrants come from Asia and Latin America, who will in turn homestead in the suburbs. Of course, this other narrative somewhat glosses over that so-called ‘white ethnics’ can also be racist and bound by tribalism – the character Archie Bunker was, after all, modeled after creator Norman Lear’s Jewish father and played by Irish Catholic Carroll O’Connor – and so too can new Asian immigrants.

It’s also true that our now-President started his career in racist exclusion in New York real estate, and whose son-in-law carries the torch of a current real estate business model of aggressively harassing New York tenants in order to flip their housing for more ‘desirable’ clients. How to reconcile the prevalence of this practice with current demographic data requires a more in-depth set of interpretations about who exactly is benefiting from such, what the numbers are – what people are moving in and how many, what people are moving out and how many – and where they’re doing these sorts of practices, but a cursory conclusion is that there are still great swaths of the city avoided by capital investment, the people benefiting from such rapacious activities are not very numerous and the people moving out under duress are far greater in number, but not so many as to offset those filling in every bedroom in Bronx and Queens – still areas that are ‘terra incognita’ for the sorts who left half a century ago and never returned.

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