When I was King: On Robert “Bobby” Fischer

Posted in Culture on January 15, 2010 by Danny

As an avid chess enthusiast, I have to take a moment to reflect on Robert “Bobby” Fischer, who died on January 17, 2008.

There is no one in chess whose mystique is greater than that of Bobby Fischer. No doubt, Fischer was a chess genius, and one of the greatest players of the 20th century. As a player, he excelled at achieving clear and objective positions. When he had an advantage, he used his superior knowledge of tactics and combinations to convert it into a win. He had a deep understanding of openings, and he was an endgame master. His greatest asset was his competitiveness, always fighting for a win with both colors. All that said: he did not have the flair of a Tal, who had a standing policy of sacrificing a piece when in trouble. He didn’t bring a scientific eye to the board like Botvinnik. And he wasn’t a diplomat that Euwe was. Even his most famous game against Donald Byrne, shows that when Fischer goes in for a sacrifice—even that of a queen—he is clearly compensated (a rook, bishop pair, and a devastating windmill position, for a queen).

The mystery surrounding Fischer is irreducible to his play. No: the mystique of Bobby Fischer goes beyond the board. It has as much to do with his play as it does with the fact that he hailed from the United States—its only champion—a nation not fond of intellectual sport, the Cold War, and his sudden disappearance(s). In the popular imagination, the film Searching for Bobby Fischer, contributes a great deal.

As a man, it has been well chronicled that Fischer was not well. His theatrics in matches (complaining about lights, Russian Doctors trying to hypnotize him, and so on) were as much a product of gamesmanship as his unstable psyche. And by now it is well known that Fischer was a fierce anti-Semite.

No one worked harder at chess than Fischer. His nemesis Borris Spassky (and “nemesis” is not quite the right word, since Spassky was always sympathetic to Fischer), once said: “Robert is capable of playing at any time of day or night. He can often be seen playing blitz… after a tiring evening adjournment session. The USA Champion plays blitz with pleasure and with passion.” And: “I saw how wholeheartedly Fischer loves chess. One even gains the impression that without chess he is lonely.” Former champion Tigran Petrosian: “What is staggering in Fischer is his chess appetite, if one can express it so. He always plays with the greatest of pleasure.” In psychoanalytic terms, one could say that he sublimated his libido in the game of chess. And without chess, Fischer quickly collapsed. Garry Kasparov says this:

He became a legend in his own lifetime. But his last, main battle—against chess itself—he lost. You must love something beyond the bounds of your profession, and apart from chess, Fischer had nothing. The chequered board and the wooden pieces conquered him completely! After becoming world champion, Fischer could not play any more. This was the danger: he achieved perfection, and everything after this was already less than perfection.[1]

I offer the following interpretation of Fischer’s life. Fischer was a psychotic. According to Freud, this means he developed a narcissistic fixation thus preventing a full transition to object-love. Thus, Fischer could never direct his libido to others and objects—or, to put it in Kasparov’s terms, Fischer never developed the capacity to love something outside his profession. Without an attachment to objects, any increase of libido will flow back—that is, narcissistically—onto the ego, aggrandizing it, which results in a psychotic episode. In his stunning study of the psychotic Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, Freud writes: “The delusional formation, which we take to be the pathological product, is in reality an attempt at recovery, a process of reconstruction.” Projects, such as Schreber’s memoir, are attempts at a cure because they serve as an outlet for narcissistic libido. I submit the claim that Fischer, before the age of 13, already suffered or was suffering from a psychotic breakdown. At that time, the game of chess rose in importance for him, and he used it to take on his accumulating narcissistic libido. He successfully used chess in this capacity for the majority of his young adulthood. This accounts for the compulsiveness Spassky and Petrosian observed. When he became champion, he was faced two problems: one, he had no immediate way to maintain active chess play, and two, the new challenger Anatoly Karpov threatened to take away his championship. The two challenges share something in common: both have the possibility of making chess refuse Fischer’s libido. Without anything else to take on his libido, it flowed backwards once again, manifesting in paranoid delusions. The final blow to Fischer occurred when he played a return match against Spassky in Yugoslavia, which expatriated him. The US government took away all of his chess memorabilia and, more importantly, the game of chess itself. What about his anti-Semitism? In conclusion, I offer the suggestion (perhaps, controversial) that his anti-Semitism was not the delusion itself. Rather, it was an attempt at a second cure in the absence of chess. To free his libido, Fischer began reconstructing an elaborate worldview in which Jews were his main enemy, behind both the US and Soviet governments—a narrative that was helped by the Cold War and the US’s actions against him. It is a narrative that grew as Fischer aged, finally resulting in the pitiful man who died in Iceland. The narrative is terrible for us, but it must have also been immensely terrifying for Fischer, as his paranoia attests. But it at least pinned his anxieties generated by the ubiquity of his own libido onto a figure.

My claim that Fischer was a clinical psychotic is not meant to garner sympathy for the man. It is indeed asking too much to forgive Fischer his anti-Semitism. Ambivalence will suffice.

[1] All foregoing quotes are taken from Kasparov’s Garry Kasparov on Fischer: My Great Predecessors, Part IV.

Life after Cancellation: Messianic Time in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Posted in Culture on January 9, 2010 by Danny

Many know that the first five seasons of the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, aired on the WB network, and then was suddenly cancelled. The series survived cancellation, however, airing for two more seasons on the UPN.

Buffy’s survival was fortuitous for its fans, but it gave the series a strange temporality. The series as a whole seemed to have been the aggregate of two runs—Seasons 1-5, and Seasons 6-7—without a synthesis. Season 5 itself seemed to have all the signs of a series finale, including the self-sacrifice of the title character. And it would have been a poetic way to end the series indeed. So complete an ending was Season 5 that it is hard to make anything of the following two seasons, which makes it tempting to think of them as their own thing. What do these two extra seasons mean for the show’s temporality?

Giorgio Agamben’s reading of messianic time in Saint Paul serves as a possible model for Buffy’s temporality. Of interest to Agamben is the way Paul conceived of Christ’s resurrection from the dead as the final overcoming of the Roman Empire by the messianic kingdom. Yet, time goes on even after its effective end. Agamben reads this “remaining time” as messianic time. On Agamben’s account, Paul saw the time that remains as “the time we need to make time end.” Messianic time is the time needed to bring Rome’s temporality to a conclusion.

What I claim is that Buffy the Vampire Slayer came to an effective end in Season 5. The final two seasons are constituted by “messianic time,” insofar as they are the time that is necessary to make the series end. This idea of trying to make the series end is picked up thematically in Season 6, as its primary narrative is about Buffy’s resurrection from the dead and the profound boredom she experiences in the quotidian. It is as if Season 6 was manifestly telling its audience that it is simply trying to bring the show to an end. It however takes another full season to bring this conclusion about.

Perhaps, the best way to serve Agamben’s theory of messianic time is to historicize it. In his survey of the US economy from the post-WWII era to the near present, The Boom and the Bubble, Robert Brenner writes that “For two decades after 1973, the US economy remained mired in worsening stagnation, the long downturn.” Then, in 1997, an economic crisis broke out in East Asia, bringing down the entire global economy. US capitalism—if not the world’s—would have died as a result, except “the US Federal Reserve—the ‘Fed’—intervened.” Alternatively put, US capitalism did in fact die that fateful summer in 97, and we are now living in messianic times, we are living in “the time we need to make time end.” (Is this why the decade after would be ripe for disaster and dystopian narratives?)

Seeing an anti-capitalist narrative in Buffy is not very difficult, as the vampire was one of Marx’s favorite metaphors for capital. But the undead monster tells another truth of capitalism beyond its bloodthirstiness. According to Brenner, the period after the Fed intervention was one of extreme contradiction (or, as Greenspan puts it, an age of turbulence). On the one hand, the intervention “ultimately delivered seven years of rapid growth of GDP, investment, labour productivity, and even real wages.” On the other hand, “the very same period witnessed the inflation of the greatest financial bubble in US history.” Like a vampire (or zombie) is both alive and dead, the messianic stage of capitalism is both a period of extreme prosperity (alive) and of extreme instability, inflation, and debt (dead). Only further injections of fresh blood—or, in financial language, “liquidity”—will keep this undead system alive.

But as Buffy must fight her greatest battle against the greatest evil—indeed, the First Evil itself—in the final moments of messianic time in order to bring the series to an end, the capitalism that lives on after its death is the most dangerous, most monstrous, capitalism to ever exist. What this means is that messianic time will not be empty and boring where the enemy mechanically winds down. It will be full and explosive, as we will have to reawaken all of our senses and capacities to fight the greatest battle yet.

In Buffy, the war ends up in the total annihilation of Sunnydale, leaving the survivors free to finally live life. This reminds me of Marx’s comment that class struggle can result in the mutual annihilation of the classes. It seems to me this is not a solution but an articulation of a problem: our limited imagination. The imagination is stuck in such a way that it cannot think a solution outside the total destruction of the world. This is what prompted my reflections on origami: can we think change without apocalypse?

Wal-Mart as Origami in Food, Inc.

Posted in Culture on January 3, 2010 by Danny

I want to follow up my last post with a concrete example.

If anyone has seen the documentary Food, Inc., then you will remember the part when the CEO of Stoneyfield Organic, Gary Hirshberg talks about selling his product at Wal-Mart. He goes through all the clichés about once having been an idealistic radical who comes to realize solvency is important to the cause which inevitably forces partnerships with corporate entities but then (in a dialectical reversal, perhaps) their product somehow begins a minor transformation in said entity…. Indeed, it seems a little like a way to rationalize making a hefty profit. Hirshberg goes on to say that Wal-Mart has the size and girth to tip the market in organic’s favor thus saving our food (we are of course reminded of Wal-Mart’s “green” initiative). He then suggests that Wal-Mart may single-handedly bring an end to hormone infused dairy products.

Aside from learning that green concerns can go on without regard to class struggle, I was taken off guard by the revelation that Wal-Mart cares about its consumers’ well-being, cares about the environment, wants quality, etc., and puts that all above the profit-motive. Then, Wal-Mart’s buyers are interviewed, where they simply explain that they are responding to buyer demand.

One phenomenon yields two radically different narratives. On one hand, Hirshberg’s trite “within and against” narrative. On the other hand, the typical free market narrative of supply and demand. How to make sense of it? Some will most certainly reject the need for a nuanced understanding of the Wal-Mart phenomenon. And perhaps they are right: it is comforting to have Wal-Mart as the Manichean representative of all of capitalism’s ills to focus the dispersed disaffection we experience. Or, we may revert to the old base/superstructure metaphor and simply say that entities like Wal-Mart are “semi-autonomous,” and therefore are only driven by the profit-motive in the last determining instance. My suggestion is that we combine the two narratives by seeing Wal-Mart as an object of origami. Like origami’s ability to expose parts of paper that (also) belong to latent or potential origami, Wal-Mart’s (or, more generally, capitalism’s) supply-and-demand fold also exposes a latent concern for human and environmental well-being, and so on. Of course, that exposed portion of paper would make better sense within a more appropriate origami (for example, is anyone shocked when such things happen at Costco?), which could be achieved by refolding Wal-Mart—say, for example, into a cooperative, where workers are partners and profits are shared. Within this new object, that concern for human and environmental well-being may not seem so strange.

Reflections on Origami

Posted in Culture on January 1, 2010 by Danny

What if the art of origami is the proper model of revolutionary social transformation?

The thought crossed my mind while I was watching the excellent documentary Between the Folds, which aired on PBS’s wonderful series Independent Lens. Aside from the actual subject matter of the film itself—which was completely engrossing—I was struck by the problem origami presents to every practitioner. The creation of origami is restricted by one formal rule: nothing can be added or taken away from the piece of paper. Unlike the painter who, no matter how minimally inclined, adds to the canvas and unlike the sculptor who chips away at the block of marble, the origamist must work with the paper as it is, folding and creasing the material to create origami. What occurred to me was this: because of origami’s restrictedness, every example of origami that passes before my eyes could be turned into any other example, given they start with the same sized paper. This might be called origami’s “principle of the conservation of material,” and because of this principle, the particular form in which an object appears—no matter how simple or complicated—is only a single expression within an infinite range of possibilities. The paper crane that all of us have seen or perhaps made in our youth is made of the same material that a complex figure or bug is made from. Learn the technique that results in that figure and one can dismantle the crane and refold it thus. In a way, every object of origami is a manifest object that contains within it an infinity of invisible yet potential latent objects.

The dominant metaphor for radical social change is taken from architecture. Think for example of Marx’s well known base/superstructure model. But beyond that, we often think of revolution as the razing of an edifice and the erection of a new one in its place. We must dismantle the capitalist mode of production. We must engage in social reconstruction. This often makes us think that the current social edifice called capitalism is too deficient in material to sustain utopia. Or alternatively, it has eroded the building material so thoroughly that it would have to be completely gutted before utopia can be built.

But what if architecture is the wrong metaphor? What if it misleads us into thinking that utopia demands new or different material from that which currently exists? Is this thought not paralyzing? For, how can we even begin to work toward utopia if the existing materials are insufficient? Time and patience is needed. The sufficient conditions of possibility must be reached before utopia can be built. One thinks here of any utopian narrative where the old city is abandoned to create utopia (see, for example, the children’s film City of Ember). In architecture, the material is not conserved. 

But what if history is paper and every mode of production results from a process of folding and creasing, like origami? I would contend that this vision of history is precisely what the bourgeoisie understood when they overthrew—or, more properly put, refolded—feudalism. Feudalism was not deconstructed; rather, it was conserved but changed through a long process of refolding into capitalism. In this way, capitalism carries within it the ghost of the past. Capitalism’s conservation of material is what makes it so daunting today, especially against an opposition that stubbornly holds onto the belief that new material must emerge to create utopia.

This also explains why capitalism carries utopian elements. Let us imagine an origami crane that is refolded into a boat. In hindsight, we will realize that the parts of the paper that are exposed now in the boat were already visible in the crane. The problem is that some of the parts, which are essential in the boat, were hidden in the crane. Capitalism is like that crane: it exposes some parts of society that will continue to be visible in utopia; the problem is that it conceals much of everything else. Likewise, utopia is so difficult to imagine because, while we see parts of it exposed, much of it is folded under capitalist paper. If we replace the metaphor of architecture with origami, then the problem changes: the point is no longer to dismantle capitalism but refold (perhaps after some unfolding) thereby releasing what remains hidden. Perhaps, we need not get rid of corporations like Wal-Mart, but rather refold them into a utopian form. The language of destruction is traded in for that of folding.

Alain Badiou has gone very far in rigorously thinking through the possibility of change and the new. Can the complexities of set theory in his thinking be simplified with origami? If so, it would run something like this: through the principle of the conservation of material, every manifest origami is one in an infinite range of possible objects that live a latent existence within it. The manifest origami receives its ontological consistency from the fact that it is the folded result of a flat sheet of paper. Thus, the void that gives the object its consistency is not a hollow center, like in a ball. The void is, rather, spread out through every fold insofar as every fold has the potential to be refolded in an infinite number of ways. The event is something like when the vision of one latent origami breaks through the manifest object in one single area of exposed paper. In a single flash, one receives a vision of all the meticulous unfolding and refolding that would transform the manifest object into that latent object. We remain faithful to that exposure by going through the meticulous process of unfolding and refolding until the latent object is made manifest. The new object is truly new, but the material is still conserved.

The Absurdity of Law: Fargo and No Country for Old Men

Posted in Films on December 27, 2009 by Danny

Freud was an astute legal analyst. His brief essay, “Criminals from a Sense of Guilt,” where he explores the way guilt can cause criminal action rather than result from it, stands as an example of his erudition:

“Analytic work then brought the surprising discovery that such deeds [crimes] were done principally because they were forbidden, and because their execution was accompanied by mental relief for their doer. He was suffering from an oppressive feeling of guilt, of which he did not know the origin, and after he had committed a misdeed this oppression was mitigated. His sense of guilt was at least attached to something.”

One immediately thinks in this connection of Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece, Memento (2000). In the final denouement, Leonard (Guy Pierce) confronts Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) for the murder of his wife. At this moment, Teddy reveals that Leonard in fact killed his own wife with an accidental overdose of insulin. Leonard, however, kills Teddy in cold blood—why? Throwing away rather simplistic answers, such as, he was unconvinced by Teddy’s explanation or insulted by it, we are left with the conclusion that killing Teddy gave him some relief from the guilt of having accidentally (?) killed his wife, so that “His sense of guilt was at least attached to something.” Leonard kills out of a sense of guilt.

Along with his analysis of guilt, Freud, already, in Three Essays, argued that moral inhibitions and the feelings of guilt and shame they produce come from within, as a reaction to the disturbing quality of autoeroticism. He also pointed out that the extremely demanding nature of most moral codes begs their transgression.  And of course in Civilization and its Discontents, Freud showed how the law does not reward but actually punishes obedience.

For Freud, people never stand in equilibrium with the law. The law either punishes transgression too harshly or not enough. Guilt is either the cause of crime or self-induced. Obedience is never rewarded but always punished. Such is the fundamental absurdity of the law.

That the law (or, more general, authority) is never fair but always perverse, incompetent, absurd, is a theme that runs throughout many Coen brothers’ films, and none more so than Fargo (1996) and No Country for Old Men (2007). A figure of law is the central protagonist in both these films—Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) and Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), respectively—and it is this element that ties these films together as a pair. These films are a joint meditation on the absurdity of law. Fargo explores the incompetence of law; its incapacity to prevent crime. No Country for Old Men explores the opposite side, that is, the monstrosity of a law that is capable of its calling.

Who can forget Frances McDormand’s wonderful performance as the pregnant policewoman, Marge Gunderson, with her Wisconsonian accent, methodical pace, and relentless diligence? We do not doubt that she is good at her job. Everything about this figure of the law—from her frumpy hat, through her bouts of morning sickness, to her harmless demeanor—only serves to reinforce her effectiveness as an upholder of the law. It is all carefully crafted to meticulously eradicate any doubt as to whether she will “get her man.” And, of course, she does get her man, the psychotic Grimsrud. But she always arrives too late. Decisively, she only arrives on the scene after a crime has been committed—a point that is driven home when she catches Grimsrud in the act of putting his partner through a wood chipper. If her slow methodical pace is what ensures us that the law will win out in the end, then it is also what troubles us with the thought that it is incapable of preventing crime.

During the Bush presidency, we became increasingly discomforted by the notion that law is incapable of delivering security, that it would achieve justice but only after the fact. We became increasingly preoccupied with creating an institution of law that could prevent harm. We left the quaint surroundings of Fargo, North Dakota for the existentially harsh desert of the Rio Grande.

But No Country for Old Men stages something interesting that both delivers on our desire and reveals its dark side: Anton Chigurh. In one sense, Chigurh exists only to show Bell that Evil has evolved beyond the competency of the law. But then we notice something peculiar about the relationship of Chigurh and Bell. Although the entire film is paced by Bell’s pursuit of Chigurh, we notice that except for the opening scene of the film (in which Bell is arresting Chigurh), they never occupy the same scenic space. Even though Bell’s investigation will bring him to sit in the same sofa, lift the same cup, reach for the same door handle, as Chigurh, never again will the two meet face to face. It is as if the two began as one character to somehow become cleaved. In that case, Chigurh is not a criminal or Evil but the other side of law itself. Or, more precisely, Chigurh is the criminal dimension of law—what I believe Giorgio Agamben calls “the force of law.” Thus, the law is now extremely efficient at its calling to prevent transgression, but how exactly?—by condemning everyone it comes across as guilty. Chigurh is able to kill without remorse because for him everyone is indeed guilty of a crime, albeit a crime not yet committed. Bell cannot understand the kind of person Chigurh is because it would require him to understand what the law essentially has become: an institution that can only create security by making everyone, even those it is sworn to protect, bear guilt.

For both Freud and the Coens, there is no such thing as a fair and balanced law. The law can only deliver justice by allowing crime or it can deliver security by making everyone culpable for crime.

The Home as Utopian Enclave in Blindness

Posted in Films on December 23, 2009 by Danny

The past decade was a golden age for dystopian science fiction films. Terminator 3 in 2003; the remade Dawn of the Dead and ecological disaster film Day after Tomorrow in 2004; the film adaptations of Constantine and V for Vendetta in 2005; Children of Men and the strange Southland Tales in 2006; another I am Legend in 2007; The Day the Earth Stood Still in 2008; and The Watchmen, Terminator: Salvation, District 9, 2012, and The Road in 2009. And there are signs that this dystopian decade will be long (The Book of Eli). At some point, someone will have to go back and make sense of this decade and proffer a hypothesis for why it was such a fertile time for dystopia. My sense, which is only provisional, is that it had as much to do with the Bush presidency as it did with the slow crisis-filled end of capitalism that we are currently witnessing.

One film in particular stands out for its utopian element: Fernando Meirelles’s 2008 adaptation of Jose Saramago’s novel Blindness. What I find particularly striking about this film is how it uses dystopia as the very precondition for utopia to emerge, albeit on a smaller scale in the form of the home.

Blindness is essentially a disaster film whose dystopian context is created by a global epidemic of a mysterious blindness. Only one person remains unaffected: the heroine, the Dr.’s Wife, wonderfully played by Julianne Moore. Like most dystopias, Blindness is a kind of existential laboratory, in which one discovers one’s most essential human characteristics. A more obvious example is another dystopian film in which Moore appeared: the excellent adaptation of Children of Men. In that film, Theo (Clive Owen), who is at the start apathetic, discovers his desire, a desire that will characterize his revolutionary spirit. In Blindness, the Dr.’s Wife finds a number of typical characteristics: courage, leadership, a sense of purpose, a will to live, etc. These emergent qualities make her the de facto leader of a group of survivors who have been quarantined at the start of the epidemic in an abandoned prison. But I believe more crucial than what she gains is what she loses, which becomes obvious when juxtaposed with the film’s antagonist, the Bartender (Gael Garcia Bernal). When food and water shipments stop arriving, the Bartender taps into some deep seated instinct that is no doubt the result of living a lifetime as an exploited member of capitalist society: namely, the will to accumulate. He and his gang hoard the supplies and offer to exchange items for, first, money, and second, women. By contrast, the Dr.’s Wife loses her attachment to private property. Life in the squalid conditions of a concentration camp has taught her the utter futility and folly of the pursuit of property, and moreover how this pursuit actually undercuts any possibility of forming a utopian collective right here and now.

The theme of private property comes to the center when the group decides to leave the camp only to discover that the entire world has turned blind. What the Dr.’s Wife decides to do is take them to her and her husband’s home. There they take refuge. She does not simply take them in as guests. Rather, she takes them in as coinhabitants, as she invites them to stay indefinitely. Or, more precisely, she has renounced her status as the home’s owner, which allows them all to inhabit the home together without anyone owning any part of it. Everything is shared, which also means that no part of the home remains private (a point that is underscored by an awkward scene in which the women share a shower and jubilantly comment on each other’s bodies). What has happened is that the collective has reclaimed the home, and this reclamation completely transforms the home from the status symbol and private space it now is into a utopian enclave within a dystopian world. In a paper Tyson Lewis and I wrote on the home in film, we described this type of utopian enclave as “the dirty home,” where the purity of objects is sullied by its exposure to a collective of people.[1]

One night, Danny Glover’s character, Man with Eye Patch, begins to talk about his hopes and desires. It is that everything will remain how it now is, and that nothing would go back to the way it was. His desire is simple: it is that they should go on living in this home together. This home is utopia. That is to say, utopia is not that difficult to imagine or even enact. We do not need elaborate blueprints or ripe political conditions to create utopia. Utopia emerges when we take ordinary objects and use them collectively in a new way. Indeed, it seems possible to create utopia even now by opening up our homes to strangers (a horrible thought to those attached to their property). The utopianism of this ability to share appears deformed in capitalism as the business partnership, where a home is copurchased in order to be “flipped.” Or, one might say that utopia appears allegorically in the business partnership. As an aside, one also thinks of the reverse case where in LA a tool of conviviality, the park bench, has bars welded over top of it to prevent the homeless from lying down thus turning an object that was originally utopian into a dystopian artifact.

The film ends with one of the members regaining his eyesight. The Dr.’s Wife steps onto her balcony, and it is as if the question is put to the audience: what indeed will remain after sight returns to the population? Will the new found utopian values last after dystopia has gone away? Will they go on living together, sharing everything, as the Eye Patch Man hopes? Or will they return to their own spaces thus turning the home back to what it once was, an insipid shelter of privacy? The dystopia creates the conditions in which a small scale utopia emerges, and so it follows that once dystopia disappears, so does the initiative behind the utopian enclave. After dystopia, will we persevere in utopia?

[1] “Home is where the Neurosis is: A Topography of the Spatial Unconscious in Late Capitalism.” Cultural Critique 64.1 (2006): 69-91.

Taken and Class Struggle

Posted in Films on December 21, 2009 by Danny

On the surface, the 2008 film Taken (directed by Pierre Morel) is a very typical (even bad) revenge film. In it, Liam Neeson turns in a rather forgettable—if not regrettable—performance as Bryan Mills, a government operative who has recently retired to live closer to his estranged daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace). After his daughter and her cousin are abducted by an Albanian mafia in Paris who intend to sell them in the sex trade, Mills comes out of retirement. What ensues is chaos, as Mills rampages through the sordid streets of Paris in search of his daughter.

But on another level, the film is a highly effective allegory of class struggle. Who can ignore the fact that the nuclear family has been transformed with the logic of capitalism, which, as Marx and Engels once put it, “has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.” As such, the parent relates to the child as the property owner would to a piece of property: do parents not have to purchase their children from hospitals and insurance companies? This gives the parent a natural right to raise the child without having to take into account the child’s own autonomy. But the capitalist restructuring of the family has another, more poignant side: the child is also the external embodiment of the parents’ labor. Is it not true that in capitalist society, we measure a parent’s worth as a parent in terms of time spent with the child? In that case, Mills’s fatherly devotion to Kim bears all of the emotional investment of that between the worker and the value that s/he produces, and her abduction has the same psychic effect on Mills as the expropriation of value has on the worker (Marx called it alienation). That the ruthless capitalist thugs have taken what is rightfully his, is a refrain that is tirelessly repeated throughout the film, and it only serves to underscore that the value that is generated in a capitalist society, which is its source of wealth, is rightfully the workers’.

The Parisian underworld is a place where women’s bodies are exchanged and traded between circles of gangs who do not consume them directly but rather “flip” their goods with an additional markup to other businessmen who sell them in turn. In other words, the Parisian sex trade has all the straighforwardness of the circulation of commodities itself. The blue collar Mills (a point that is emphasized by his juxtaposition with his exwife’s impotent yet wealthy husband) has no prior experience with the circulation of commodities—after all, he is only the producer of value—and so to find his daughter he must follow her into the downward spiral of this sphere. But Kim herself does not enter circulation as value—that is, as a daughter. Rather, her entrance into circulation inaugurates her transformation into a prostitute, a commodity. It is as the commodity of prostitute that Kim will disappear, and then reappear only to disappear once again. But she will momentarily reappear neither as value (daughter) nor as commodity (prostitute), but as money. In one crucial scene, Mills infiltrates a gang safe house by posing as a corrupt policeman, and once the gang finally decides to bribe him with a dividend from the surplus value they accumulated through the sale of Kim, he holds in his hand, in the form of cash, a literal piece of his daughter. Indeed, his daughter was once in this house, and she has left behind a hint. Of course, Mills visits upon this house his just rage.

So it is as such that the film unfolds, with Mills discovering the darkest corners of the sphere of circulation: he finds warehouses of women, marketplaces where they are traded, the businessmen who do not abduct but purchase their goods in fair business deals only to turn around and sell them at a profit. There is of course the obligatory capture scene, where Mills had been subdued by a ring of profiteers, at which point he says he is willing to “buy” his daughter back. When the offer is respectfully turned down, Mills has no choice but to blow it all up. When he finally confronts the CEO of this ring with a pistol, he is told “It is just business,” and so it is. The exploitation of labor and the expropriation of surplus value are only, for the capitalist, strictly business, and so should we not take pity on them? Mills answers in the negative. 

In the final denouement, Mills is face to face with the Sheik, that is, the consumer of women. He has a knife to her throat. Mills takes dead aim with his pistol. He is thinking of how this man has participated in the commodification of his labor. He is getting angry at the threat. The Sheik knows he is cornered, but he has money and power on his side, and he is willing to cut Mills in only if he will let the Sheik live. (Is it not true that capitalists require the incentive of force in order to deal with the proletariat?) When the Sheik begins to offer a deal, Mills shoots and kills him without remorse, disallowing him from even finishing his sentence. Perhaps, Taken offers a strategy for class struggle: when the proletariat puts any sort of pressure on the capitalists, the latter will inevitably offer a compromise, but instead of taking the deal, instead of even listening to the offer, perhaps the proletariat must recall the savageness with which their value was taken from then, and then…act appropriately.