Hollywood Nomadology?


Linda Brigham

Like thousands of other victims of midsummer ennui, I went to see the apparently stock Hollywood blockbuster, Independence Day. It wasn't as bad as I expected. Despite the banality of its stereotypes and the childlike simplicity of its plot (or partly because of them) Roland Emmerich's action-packed flick does take a position on the world's end we haven't often seen in the apocalypse-riddled 80s and 90s. ID4 (to use the film's absurd militaristic subtitle) is, like so many of its ilk, a fantasy of the destruction of the State Apparatus. But in contrast to most plots in the cascade of futuristic post-annihilation fictions, We didn't do it; They did. In fact, Their intergalactic planet-wasting style makes the ecological predations of global capitalism look like spilled milk.

It is a mistake, moreover, to decode these bad aliens as more familiar Others - immigrants, the underclass, terrorists. The merry mood of this fantasy turns on the absence of guilt and self-doubt, this in turn facilitated by the absolute self-othering of the aliens, who deliberately reject all attempts at negotiation in the name of extermination. The purity and simplicity of their malice relieves any introspective weight from counteraggression - smelliness, for example, can be attributed to these aliens without the guilty acknowledgement of culturally relativistic standards of hygiene. The result is battle as pure play, a way made clear, a path to enjoyment on the order of a football rivalry. And look at the difference this makes to the apple-pie Morning After scene: rejecting formulaic footage in recent apocalyptic cinema, and counterpointing the racist overtones of the description of looting by "vultures" early in the movie, these folks behave themselves after the aliens do their stuff. People of color do not run off with TVs. Men do not attack women in a nihlistic orgy of unrestrained testosterone. Everybody cooperates.

Nor is this movie an advertisement for Star Wars technology, if indeed one grants the possibility of appropriating the tabloid rhetoric of "they're out there" as a ploy for multibillion-dollar funding. The tech of choice in Independence Day is low not high; bottom up not top down. Morse code not C3I, conventional not nuclear, ad hoc and not strategic. The critique of preparedness cites interagency turf - CIA versus DOD - rather than US or global disarmament as the main contributor to the aliens' initial successes. This is not in fact a "paranoid" movie at all, rather remarkable for a tale of Final War. It is a much less processed and disguised wish-fulfillment.

The aliens, the movie shows, did Earth a big favor. They wiped out Big Government. Even more, they wiped out both private and political property, neighborhood and nation. They accomplished what aficianados of both free trade and the Internet claim for their respective objects of admiration: deterritorialization of a statist space that has grown so heavy with overcoding that its nearly crushed inhabitants are not simply itching for a fight, but dying for lines of flight. In the movie we find the ex-bourgeoisie welcoming that deterritorialization in the form of a nomadic tribe of Winnebagos freed from their normally marginalized and oppressed class status, itself the result of a world divided into interlocking geographic principalities that by definition exclude the itinerant. The itinerant becomes not only a hero but a way, a path to a reterritorialization on non-statist lines. But the movie ends without any indication of where this path leads.

Of course, with an almost ritual Hollywood conservatism, Independence Day maintains certain territories inviolate, despite the plot's claim to make July Fourth an ecumenical holiday. African-Americans are running backs, not quarterbacks. Children and fidelity are women's proper business; the two erring wives of the movie repent their independence. And Jews are smart. But it may be that these inconsistencies follow with less necessity from the overall logic of the film than they might from the film's twisted siblings, for example, the Road Warrior movies of the 80s. In the latter, tolerance, women, and children clearly require some form of community structure for whatever paltry freedoms they possess. In the more traditional plot, deterritorialization is the outcome of a cataclysm of our own making, and it produces a guilty reaction formation of adolescent violence, a caricature of white male backlash, nihilistic mayhem by and between xenophobically tribalized skinheads for whom women become objects of exchange and consumption. Clearly, in these films, the only hope of civilization, and of women, is a safe zone. Rules of coordination. Restraint. In short, some form of geographically territorializing State Apparatus, specifically a liberal-capitalist one.

Opposing Independence Day to Road Warrior pits Deleuze & Guattarian nomadology against Enlightenment (the Romantic hero's sidekick that really runs the show). The "nomad" notion goes far beyond the trendy romance of the Bedouin, just as Enlightenment is more than a banner of principled resolve waving over liberals, Marxists, and psychoanalysts (even as they variously repudiate it). The nomad is the counterpart, the complement, to the State Apparatus. It is the exterior to the State's interior, not only in the sense that, like those of "no fixed address" who elude the census and the tax collector, it wanders out of the grid-like geography of the state, but in the sense that at every point, in every respect, nomads lack an "inward," a soul. If we take the state as a hierarchically and functionally organized body, recapitulated in the hierarchical organization of each of its members, nomads, a group to be sure, a body to be sure, are not organisms, not organizations, neither as a whole nor in terms of individual components. They comprise a field rather than a set of individuals. Members of the state have "feelings," nomads have "affects;" members of the state "communicate," nomads "signal" - all of which is to say that members of the state, like the state itself in its executive dimension, have a complex interiority whose nature is, in the process of state function, made manifest, the soul working through the body. Nomads, in contrast, are pure relay points, pure vectors.

Which brings us to the matter at hand: the phrase "media ecology" is either another adjustment for humanism, or it's a redundancy. It's either the refinement of a prosthesis to help or hinder the development of Self and Community, or it's the amplification of an anti-humanism all set to deal a death blow to hylomorphism, the ancient dualism of matter and spirit. Two examples: for Jürgen Habermas, a liberal humanist, "media" refer, as they do in common parlance, to conduits for communication whose nature can but need not reduce and abstract complex human interactions. This is the basis for his insistence that natural language be the medium for social exchange, as opposed to more abstract entities such as money. Money is an example of what he calls steering media, forms of signification uncoupled from the lifeworld that have the power to proceed on their own and perpetuate themselves according to their own rules and schemes. On the other hand, take David Wellbery's description of poststructuralism in his foreword to Friedrich Kittler's Discourse Networks. Wellbery describes poststructuralism as replacing the concept of the subject with the concept of the body; agency, or self, is in actuality a "restriction of its possibilities... a reduction of complexity." That complexity is medium itself.

For the nomad, "media ecology" is redundant. A medium is not quite that through which a signal passes; it is more accurate to say that a signal is the movement of a medium. Ecology consists of media. Brain and body are both such media. They move. But the State Apparatus maintains a non-redundancy of media ecology; the dualism of medium and message supports a hygiene of the media, a hygiene of the organized body of the state. As an organism, the state delegates certain members to its frontiers as antibodies. Contrary to the chivalric myth that still continues to march across the common run of fantasies, women and children are the first line of defense, the real "peacekeepers;" when they fall sick or die, morally or physically, the guys with guns and missiles come in to clean up. The last real global defense "strategy" was Mutual Assured Destruction in the 60s, when the civilians of the U.S. and the Soviet Union were held hostage to crude and unspeakable megatonnage. Unarmed bodies, not bombs, kept the peace or defined the war; thus terrified, women and children cling to the State Apparatus.

Theoretically, the nomad scenario doesn't operate this way. If medium is synonymous with ecology, each point - a woman medium or a man medium or a child medium - determines the character of adjacent space like an electron cloud. They bond together according to localized field dynamics rather than an overarching scheme. Of course, any liberatory reality behind the theory has yet to be seen.



Linda Brigham is an assistant professor at Kansas State University. A British Romanticist by training,
she is currently working on critical issues related to modernity and technology. 


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