Troy, The Chronicles of Riddick, and Bush Culture

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BUSH CULTURE REVIEW. Troy is a social palimpsest for Bush culture, a point at which the values propagated by the Bush administration can be read for effect: determined militarism, subordination of citizens to aggressive state policy, and a campaign against male effeminacy. The Chronicles of Riddick, on the other hand, is a study in anti-Bush culture and a film of resistance.

Tomasz Kitlinski and Joe Lockard

Thus cursed steel, and more accursed gold,
Gave mischief birth, and made that mischief bold:
And double death did wretched Man invade,
By steel assaulted, and by gold betray'd,
Now (brandish'd weapons glittering in their hands)
Mankind is broken loose from moral bands...
-- Ovid's Metamorphoses, Garth and Dryden translation, 1:180-184

This summer's blockbuster action film season brought Troy and The Chronicles of Riddick to the screen. Troy is a social palimpsest for Bush culture, a point at which the values propagated by the Bush administration can be read for effect: determined militarism, subordination of citizens to aggressive state policy, and a campaign against male effeminacy. The Chronicles of Riddick, on the other hand, is a study in anti-Bush culture and a film of resistance.

Wolfgang Petersen's Troy is a deep cultural fantasy, a disturbing vision articulated from within the oppressive illusions of Bush culture. As Greek warriors led by an Aryan fair-haired Achilles invade Troy and slash their way through dark-haired Trojans, the film scenario reproduces the Iraq invasion zeitgeist. The siege of Troy was a clash of civilizations, the McGreeks versus the Trojan Jihad. According to Homer, the war culminated the conflicts of its time: economic, political, and cultural. It was the war of annihilation of its day, a war that determined history, a war of Bush versus bin Laden dimensions.

In Troy, Greece, putative mother of Western civilization, has been modeled once again to new global exigencies, as it has been since the Renaissance. The Iliad is adaptable to the spirit of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, as the Stanley Lombardo colloquial translation so neatly illustrates with a cover photo taken from the invasion of Normandy. That adaptability is available because, like many canonical works, the Iliad is uncanny, shifting, and refuses definitional confinements. It remains an open and self-renewing text in the sense that Harold Bloom perceives canonicity as "a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it strange."

But where in the Iliad we still encounter bizarrerie, in Troy the visual and sexual could not be more ordinary despite the virtual scenery and slogging virtual massed troops. There is no uncanniness in Troy. Achilles is a predictable one-dimensional man, a well-muscled bourgeois stick-figure; there is no place for doubts, bisexuality, or open personality. In classical tradition, Achilles is both arch-male and girlish, sometimes a man and sometimes a girl. "What was the name of Achilles when he was a girl?" was a favorite question of emperor Tiberius to his scholars, and a Pompeii fresco depicts Achilles hidden among girls. But Troy never images Achilles as the other, that is, as fully human.

And yet Brad Pitt brings to the character a queer something, a frisson of recognition. He does not need the paraphernalia of gayness to be gay: he worked out, fasted, made himself younger, and transformed into a savage white-boy Narcissus. The result is an inadvertent American racial satire of the pied classical Greek boy, the kuros. Alongside his sexual obfuscations, the Achilles of Troy is a pastiche that fails to recognize its racial borrowings. It is a pastiche that seizes on a buffed-up military physique to conceal an underlying disquiet over possibilities beyond strict heterosexuality, as if swordplay could subdue sexuality.

Sex — a seduction and elopement — served as a pretext for the Trojan War. Helen, femme fatale, and Paris, homme fatal, began the war through heterosexual desire and transgression. Yet the sexuality of the time was polymorphic: Helen, Paris, Achilles, and Patroclus were all-sexual, polysexual. Julia Kristeva calls Greeks âmosexuels: the lovers of the soul (âme), the lovers of love. That pan-sexuality is an indecency in the eyes of contemporary American puritanism. Fear of such foreign pan-sexuality describes Troy, where Achilles has been hetero-normalized and where Hector and Achilles are symmetrically straight.

This is a film that despite its self-confidence is at the verge of potentially disastrous self-recognition; but it is a potential that gets buried beneath military violence. That quintessential feature of Bush culture, its triangulation between sexuality, violence, and an apex of bourgeois complacency, courses through Troy and directs its reading of the Iliad. The arch-conservative, arch-Christian political activist Paul Weyrich specified the political value of this linkage between sexual suppression and military aggression. According to Weyrich in the New York Times (July 9, 2004), "Given what the continued killing [in Iraq] has done to the president's standing in the polls this far, it is a lead-pipe cinch that as we lead up to the first days of November, 2004, violence is going to be horrific."

The solution to President Bush's re-election problem, Weyrich advocates, lies in making the Federal Marriage Amendment a presidential campaign issue in order to consolidate and mobilize the Republican Party conservative base. "Traditional marriage is under assault," declares the amendment's author, Senator Wayne Allard, when in reality it is the US directing assaults against Iraq. By attacking pan-sexuality and equal civil rights for gay people, as the Marriage Amendment initiative is currently doing with support from the Bush administration, an attempt is being made to obscure the costs of an invented Iraq War. An economy of sexual repression and mobilization of anti-homosexual fear, combined with the public over-valorization of warrior-fathers absent overseas, thus circulates as a means of outweighing growing opposition to the casualties incurred by imperial violence.

"Mankind is broken loose from moral bands" runs the translation of Metamorphoses as Ovid describes simultaneous human progress and decline. But these are not the moral bonds that Allard, Weyrich and the religious far-right imagine. A culture that promotes liberation by invasion, where there has been no legitimately identified threat upon which to invoke a right to self-defense, is a culture that produces and diffuses social subordination throughout itself. Subordination becomes a social product with multifold directions of distribution. Iraq, homosexuality, poor people — all become legitimate targets for suppression under Bush culture, which employs simultaneous conversionary rhetoric concerning liberation, traditional families, or economic uplift. The open door out of subordination is conversion to new values, to the proclaimed and facially unchallengeable values of Bush culture.

In the above-cited passage from Metamorphoses, the moral bonds lie in an affirmation of common humanity, not the denial of humanity through the instruments of state violence and capital formations — "cursed steel, and more accursed gold." Legislative or representational eradication of autonomy and independent identity violates those bonds and participates in systemic subordination. It is at this point that the denials and invasions of the Bush administration and Troy function together.

As always, when Hollywood makes movies about antiquity it makes movies about America. Maria Wyke realized this when she asked about the film Quo Vadis: "To take the emperor Nero as an example: in what senses, in 1951, could a film be about ancient Rome but for modern America?" Henryk Sienkiewicz's novel Quo Vadis (1895-6) may have been set in ancient Rome, but it was compensation for an absent homeland, for Poland's non-existence. The Hollywood film version undertook another ideological project in compensating for America's failings in the Cold War. The novel and the film both foreground themes of decadence, slavery, gladiatorial combats and religion, but each employs culture-specific effects where a classical narrative setting is a malleable environment. That same use of classicism as territory for political debate has been an abiding feature of Hollywood movie-making, as when Spartacus (1960) announced a fight against McCarthyism that was both populist and intellectual. When Spartacus served as a script-stage for Dalton Trumbo (and less nobly, as Vito Russo pointed out in In the Celluloid Closet, for censorship of homosexuality), or when Fellini's Satyricon (1969) captured the exhuberant libidinal excess of the late 1960s, film classicism achieved its best as a dramatic engagement with liberational potential.

The Iliad, however, resists simple-minded conversionary efforts by Hollywood. Its political and social complexities have made it a text that consistently has attracted progressive critics of culture. Simone Weil wrote in L'Iliade ou le poème de la force (1939) that the Iliad was a poem of power, an observation that sheds political light on how it lends itself to re-interpretation as a film of force with the matrix of Bush culture. In Vision of Tragedy, Richard B. Sewall interpreted: "Simone Weil, whose essay on the Iliad is unsurpassed in its insight into the tragic aspect of Homer, shows the world of that epic as dominated by force, blind and mechanical, which reduces men to things and destroys them indiscriminately. . ."

Like a Donald Rumsfeld press conference, in the Iliadic world authority does not suffer contradiction lightly: no Homeric hero asks Job's radical, rebellious questions. "We men are wretched things," a submissive Achilles says wearily to Priam, "and the gods who have no cares themselves have woven sorrow into the very pattern of our lives." [Iliad, Book 24] Weil argues that, although the question of justice "enlightens" the Iliad, it never "directly intervenes in it." "In the end," writes Weil, "the very idea of wanting to escape the role fate has allotted one — the business of killing and dying — disappears from the mind." In Weil's interpretation, the Iliad is the picture of the triumph of liberal democracy, a false neo-Hegelian conceit concerning progress towards the end of history.

Horkheimer and Adorno took up Homeric narrative in The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) to argue that while cultural fascists might give nominal honor to its stories, "They scent out a democratic spirit, characterize the work as redolent of seafarers and traders, and condemn the Ionian epic as all-too-rational expository narrative and a mere communication of conventions." They contend "The fashionable ideology which is deeply concerned to liquidate enlightenment, unwittingly reveres it, and is compelled to recognize enlightened thought even in the most distant past." In their reading, Homer provides a basic text of European civilization that attests to the inter-linkage of myth and enlightenment, contrary to post-Renaissance strong-arm political philosophies that employ classical mythology to rationalize hierarchies of greater and lesser beings, of physical strength over weakness. And it was Hannah Arendt who suggested in The Human Condition (1958) that the genius of the Iliad lays in its celebrating winners and losers alike. Unlike Arendt's reading, Troy and Bush culture entirely reject the Iliadic tradition towards any purpose of social reconciliation.

With a rich range of re-interpretive possibilities for the Iliad and social readings available for Troy, Wolfgang Petersen chooses to leave them all vacant, translating the epic into a bourgeois melodrama and cash bonanza.

On the Beachheads of Desire

Warrior, the time bomb's about to go
what will you feel
will you ever wonder
if that man that's in your sights
ever kissed his girlfriend goodbye. . .
— 'Baghdad,' The Offspring (2004)

This latest Troy film — the most recent one having been the made-for-TV Helen of Troy (2003) — arrived in theaters during a summer when the US is divided into camps of Bush culture and anti-Bush culture. It is over-simple to categorize cultural products as falling into one or the other camp, especially when they may have shared audiences and incorporate divergent ideological impulses. Still, this is useful shorthand to describe the present configuration of a US culture chasm that has been evident since the Reagan years and before.

If Troy, a film that indulges imperial vision and converts homosexuality to hetero-masculinity, represents Bush culture, then The Chronicles of Riddick playing in the same cinema complex voices anti-Bush culture.

Vin Diesel, cast as prison escapee Richard Riddick, confronts an invading technologically-superior Necromonger empire that rampages through another quasi-Asiatic and multicultural civilization on the planet Helion in order to subdue it to the empire's values and purposes. For the Necromongers, freedom lies in submission of all species to physical and mental transformation in order to participate in the imperial theology. As a Furyan, a member of a near-extinct species, Riddick is the killer-resister, the anti-hero from Pitch Black who becomes a hero by engaging in apocalyptic confrontation with the Necromonger armies led by the despotic Lord Marshal. It is a film of opposition to the civilizational claims of empires, to the demand to submit to an integrationist globalism.

Film critic Paul Clinton called Chronicles of Riddick "big, loud and meaningless": it is the first two, but definitely not the last. Invasion films narrate the establishment of political orders, for better or worse, and invasion films made in the midst of Bush culture have a meaning just as The Longest Day (1962) and Saving Private Ryan (1998) had during the Kennedy and Clinton administrations. A naval armada, whether Greek galleys or the Allied fleet off the coast, or Necromonger space cruisers hanging in the atmosphere, are the most dramatic symbols of an imminent revolutionary reversal of power. If the arrival of an armada in these films stages a demand for change, that change reflects an ideological present and history internalized within the film.

The anti-Bush culture of The Chronicles of Riddick bases itself on an anti-hero, the Dostoyevskian underground man risen once again to the surface. As writer-director David Twohy explains, Riddick's character is about an evolving spiritual awakening generated as a killer meets even worse killers. Riddick's redemption comes from his recognition that attempted masters of worlds, the Lord Masters who build and protect enslavement systems, represent a far worse evil than he could ever accomplish. His inherent, absolute refusal to capitulate to the Necromonger system protects Riddick: he is the perfect monad. Riddick is a better Achilles than Achilles, for he is fully self-reliant and bears no relationship to the state other than rejection, a scowl, and relentless antagonism if attacked. A state is only another prison to escape. His is a citizenship for self and friends in need; his Furyan powers are not for integration into any system that would exploit them. For these reasons, Riddick is the natural enemy of the Necromancer way, its incorporative technology, and its imperial project to build an all-encompassing 'Underverse.' The clash is fundamental and inevitable.

Riddick is a penetrator of imperial state institutions, but one who can play the nonchalant slave on his own whim. He is an arch-male dandy, an Oscar Wilde hunk, dripping with pheromones and bisexual Byronic seduction. In Riddick the Gothic, invariably an attempt at the sublime, finds its sublime anti-hero, its Manfred. In the Orientalist 'exploration of darkness' tradition, Riddick expresses the same willingness to follow a downwards quest as gay eccentric William Beckford and Vathek, his Gothic novel of hell-ward descent. Riddick comes from a prison planet and the unconscious; he emerges from the roman noir of our inner horror. Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick have their roots both in Marquis de Sade's praise of the Gothic novel and in the uncanny texts of American literature (Brockden Brown, Poe, Anne Rice). A dark rebel revels in the forbidden; his glasses are mirrors and his pecs are awesome; he is raw, rugged and rapacious, without the artificial, cosmetic effort of Brad and Bush and Blair.

If we credit the arguments of Robert K. Martin and Eric Savoy that the Gothic is the national narrative of the United States, Riddick is the American Gothic super-anti-hero. And as Leslie Fielder understood, slavery is the undercurrent theme of the American Gothic. Both Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick, with their multiple forms of imprisonment, are about slavery. The memory, trauma and haunting is there. The Bush administration, ideological heir to the repressive politics of the American South, wants to enslave our political imagination, but the Riddicks of this world arise from filmic imagination.

Texas Myrmidons of Straightness

Troy is Texas to Riddick's wilderness of the Gothic; it is the forest of Puritan shame opposed to free surrealist spirit. The same basic invasion plot operates between Troy and Chronicles; both films are political desiring-machines, but with opposed visions of the state's role in fulfilling or denying their desire. In Troy, desire has been reconfigured into the monochromatic but abundant heterosexuality of Bush culture. The film renders the homosexual love of Achilles and Petroclus into a denatured uncle-nephew relationship, one obsessively mentioned in the script as if to deny the homosexuality attributed to this relationship from Aeschylus forward.

By rewriting the Iliad into a revisionist sexual conformity the film 'cleanses' classical narrative tradition, eliminates the 'filth' of homosexuality, and converts Achilles into a hetero-normative hero. Instead of Petroclus, Achilles sleeps with Briseis — now a Trojan priestess, but a captive slave in the original text — or as many women as can climb into his bed for servicing. Revisionism re-casts Achilles with a violent schizophrenia, penetrating women with sexual abandon and men with battle-swords. Petersen — whose vision of Troy is a straight-edged Prussian fabulation rather than a walled city of Asia Minor — revises multi-directionally towards heterosexuality, cleanliness and violence, without a sense of irony. When Offenbach portrayed Achilles as a buffoon in La belle Hélène, his opera buffa mocked classical pomp and indulged sexual innuendo to scandalize 1860s Paris. Troy does not mock pomp; far from it, the film delights in classicist pomp, glitz, and pseudo-statuary.

Achilles' honor consists in independent pursuit of his destiny, and that destiny lies in a warrior's achievement of immortality. In this Bush-culture version, when Achilles rages at the death of Petroclus, who he has trained as a warrior, there is an underlying anger at the frustration of asexual self-reproduction through military training. There can be no transmitted esprit de corps when the corpse lies lifeless. The martial camaraderie that so heavily typifies Bush culture, with its omnipresent recruiting ads, inspirational latter-day Ajax marines, and a uniformed president on the flight deck, concerns exactly this reproduction of heterosexual warriors. Abu Ghraib photographs were disturbing not only because of their Mayberry-does-sadomasochism origins inside a military prison unit caught up in sexual mayhem, but because they inform us that the 'don't ask, don't tell' US military views homosexual poses as a means of torture for despicable enemies. To capitulate was to become vulnerable to dishonor through enforced homosexuality. For the same reason that Achilles could not be represented as both homosexual and warrior, for one status would annul the other, so too Iraqi men could be informed of their failed or absent warrior status through homosexual poses.

The sex culture of contemporary US militarism relies on that same evocation of honor through enforced hyper-masculinity, but with the new promise of technological exceptionalism: high-tech can keep death away. Bulked-up Brad Pitt and his black-armored Myrmidons can stand in for the US Special Forces spearheading the latest invasion, but they also re-emphasize and return viewers to the primal hand-to-hand combat from which organized military formations emerged. Lack of masculinity, as where the whimpering and defeated Paris crawls away from Menelaus to ask Hector's protection, means battlefield defeat. What the near-endless computer-generated battle scenes of Troy suggest is that no amount of technology can substitute for the passion of killing by hand, by the old means. That contradiction between bloody hand-to-hand killing and electronic technology's bloodlessness and distance creates a need for virtual reformulation of battlefield killing into a hyper-grotesque sexualization, a festival of male plunging, lunging, piercing, splitting, and screaming. Killing now done from a distance by electronic means requires its virtual mass training-ground parallel, one that creates a para-masculinity through spectatorship.

The film's ultra-violent heterosexual make-over of Greek warrior culture suggests that killing enemy males is far more satisfying than peaceful, non-invasive relations. A violation of heterosexual male ownership — Helen's affair with Paris — can be remedied only through military formation of masculinity. As Agamemnon tells an audience, however, that violation is a mere excuse for the consolidation of the Greek nation-state through an invasion of Troy. The real concern is the expansion of Greek domain and reduction of Troy's walls so that no future challenge can arise from that city. Civilized sexual morality provides a means for a state to rationalize and promote its civil conduct, but rights of individual choice in sexuality are of negligible import - and sexuality not condoned by the state has no rights at all.

Here is where Troy's version of Agamemnon (definitely not the Iliad's version) shares a policy problem in common with George W. Bush. What derivative relationship can be drawn between a domestic issue — i.e. preservation of the heterosexual family under special state sanction — and the foreign issue of establishing a right order in the family of nations? For Agamemnon, a military campaign was affirmation of collective heterosexual rights to Helen; for George Bush, a military campaign was, among other underlying purposes, an affirmation of American masculine determination to resist after the symbolic humiliation of September 11, despite absence of any link between Iraq and that event. Both Troy's Agamemnon and George Bush employed an outraged patriotic masculinity demanding immediate redress, converting it into purposes entirely remote from the original cause of complaint.

Exhibitionism and Marketability

This is a masculinist economy of violent cruelty that requires exhibitionism for its effect. As Russell Smith observes in his review 'Connecting the Dots between Troy and Iraq' (Globe and Mail, May 27), "Why is Achilles ever so fascinating? Well, guess what he does, in a foreign land, mad with sorrow, at war, having seen his loved one die? He turns into a barbarian Where have we seen this recently? First the Iraqis did it, to those 'contractors' they killed, then the Americans did it to at least one dead prisoner at Abu Ghraib." Achilles dragging Hector's body Fallujah-style around Troy's walls is an individual act of violent exhibitionism; the videotaped beheading of captives by Islamic guerillas is a small-group act; and the video footage in Farenheit 9/11 of US bombing and Iraqi casualties extends this cruel exhibitionism into a global scale. Conversion of reasonable people into barbarians is a social product of violence and its circulation, of a massive rupture into human degradation, of a transmogrification of human bodies into objects for ruination.

Agamemnon, who precipitates this violent conversion employing a non-excuse of offended royal honor, is a narcissistic war criminal. The Greek state and its flotilla of galleys is the conversion-machine, endowed with an ability to validate excuses for brutalization. This is not a formulation that Troy questions or challenges; rather, like the crafty captain-king Odysseus, the film abides with Agamemnon's deeds as an entailed privilege of kingship. In this too Troy participates in Bush culture and the political ideology that asserts the Chief of State is chief destroyer, endowed with an unquestionable ability to exterminate opposition in the name of the state. Whereas the Agamemnon of the Iliad has Lenin-esque moments, little differentiates the state-equals-self Agamemnon of Troy from George W. Bush in their production of subordination as a goal of state power.

Troy's script was written to ensure its public marketability, another feature of Bush culture present in the risible succession of state-authored stories about why Iraq should have been invaded. The film adaptation manically re-writes the Iliad in order to conclude the conflict briskly instead of drag out over ten years; Briseis kills Agamemnon after he assaults her, meaning that Clymenestra will have to do without her husband's return to Greece; it introduces the Trojan Horse from the Aeneid, not the Iliad; and Helen and Paris now get to live happily ever after escaping the sack of Troy (adopting a closure strategy from the abominable 1995 Roland Joffé revision of The Scarlet Letter, where Hester Prynne, Pearl and Dimmesdale create a happy nuclear threesome). As director Wolfgang Petersen explained, "Our film is a collection of motifs and story elements, drawing mainly from the Iliad." There are no antiquated Greek gods, because "It wouldn't have been in line with the level of realism that we wanted to achieve in the film." The pre-Christian gods are dead because they do not sell, because literalism is the aesthetic order of the day, and finally because they contest human sovereignty over the story.

The marketable version of the Iliad disregards basic narrative and dispenses with unnecessary explanations, quite like the Bush administration's work to dress up its miserable excuse of a story in order to justify pre-arranged invasion plans. Capital investment and a demand for return on investment re-shaped the Iliad into a more marketable narrative, one that more closely conformed to Warner Brothers' estimation of a profitable product. When Paris lets fly the arrow that strikes through Achille's heel, killing the covert homosexual in order to let a new-fashioned heterosexual family escape the fall of Troy, Petersen's version of the Iliad conforms to the values of hetero-marketability that shape Bush culture.

Bush vs. Anti-Bush Culture

The last months of the present Bush administration have witnessed an outpouring of Bush vs. anti-Bush culture. Bookstore shelves are filled with pro-Bush writers — Bill Sammon, Jed Babbin, ultra-militarist Robert Pattson, and blonde-bitch-on-steroids Anne Coulter — set against anti-Bush writers such as Bill Press, Steve Coll, and right-deserters Arianna Huffington and Dave Brock. As Alan Wolfe suggests, most of the Bush-side literature is characterized by its insistent illusions. "Conservatives cannot give up on the idea that the left runs the country," Wolfe observes accurately, "when in fact the right does, which adds an element of unreality to books that are supposed to touch on the real world." (NYTBR, July 11) The selection of counter-Bush literature is particularly robust, with energized publishers catching the political wave with titles like Clint Willis' The I Hate George W. Bush Reader, Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber's Banana Republicans, and the always-excellent Tom Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? This can all be read while listening to the new Rock Against Bush punk-rock compilation album on the Fat Wreck label.

But this is the overt discursive level of culture, and the conflict between Bush and anti-Bush cultures functions at levels of aesthetic ideology that are far less obvious. For example, how did Robert Ludlum's Bourne novels of the 1980s, featuring ancient-news international terrorist Carlos, come to be revivified as a confrontation between an ex-agent of the state and his former government agency employers? The trope of once-erased memory now returning, of fractured memories recombining under pressure from current circumstances, emerges in the context of Vietnam and Central American historical memories from the 1960s-1980s returning as the Bush administration has dragged the United States into Iraq. Carlos has disappeared from the script and the interpretive center has shifted to individual-state conflict. When an exilic Matt Damon takes aim at his ex-masters in the US government in The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy is it a radical rejection of the state that formed him into a warrior?

Both the Bourne films and The Chronicles of Riddick identify desire for an outsider-hero who, if forced, is capable of penetrating the heart of imperial state power in order to protect against imposed servitude. From within an action picture's genre conventions, they voice a radical denial of the state's claim on bodies for the purposes of war. Recovery of psychological integrity, autonomy, and peace from regimes of state violence are integral themes here; they answer an endemic need manifest throughout contemporary US culture. Anti-Bush culture lies not only in the explicit level of public policy debate, but at least as importantly if not more so in these films can be located in the interlinked substrata — specifically the eroticism and violence — of US narratives.

Cruelty provides a crucial cultural lynchpin between such eroticism and violence, so evident in Troy. The veneer of social denial that refuses to acknowledge this linkage empowers the falsities of 'decency' that overlook the emotional intimacy between sex and war, between different expressions of the desire for possession. Georges Bataille specified this linkage in L'érotisme (1957), writing "Cruelty and eroticism are conscious intentions in a mind which has resolved to trespass into a forbidden field of behavior. Such a determination is not a general one, but it is always possible to pass from one domain to another, for these contiguous domains are both founded on the heady exhilaration of making a determined escape from the power of a taboo." Bataille continues his argument on the nature of the calm cruelty involved in modernist transgressions between sex and violence: "Organized war with its efficient military operations based on discipline, which when all is said and done excludes the mass of the combatants from the pleasure of transgressing the limits, has been caught up in a mechanism foreign to the impulsions which set it off in the first place; war today. . . is a dismal aberration geared to political ends."

For Bataille, whose life extended through two World Wars and French colonial wars in Algeria and Vietnam, modern warfare involved attempted de-sexualization of violence as opposed to the immediate sexuality apparent in classical and less technologically advanced warfare. This de-sexualization of violence altered contemporary war from an exercise in aggression to an exercise in cruelty. Bataille's secular discussion of unconscious and conscious transgressions is particularly useful in distinguishing between Bush and anti-Bush culture, between the film worlds of Troy and The Chronicles of Riddick, between violence as unconscious and conscious cruelty.

Bush culture expresses a puritanical, abstinence-promoting denial of sexualities and an insistence on the righteousness of its violence in the service of global freedom. The cruelties involved in realization of these features remain unrecognized by Bush culture although — or because — they constitute its deep-seated ideology. A willingness to overlook cruelty and degradation, to accept these as normative and necessary practice in human affairs, links the salvational puritanism of Bush culture with its enthusiastic embrace of tools of violence. Sexuality and its repressions under this cultural regime shift towards violence; the transgressions merge into a reinforcing complex buried within an authorizing unconscious. Brad Pitt's warrior musculature in Troy signals attractive sexual possibility as well as violent potential, as do the muscles of men and women free-climbing sheer cliffs in Marine recruiting commercials on television. Heterosexist exhibitionism and state violence authorize each other. In The Chronicles of Riddick Vin Diesel displays similar qualities and physique, but in opposition to Bush culture these signal independence and a refusal of servitude. The violence Riddick employs serves to preserve him, not the invading empire; while abundant, it is not gratuitous. Riddick's sexuality is self-contained and not exhibitionist, the sexuality of a monad without invasion plans. For Riddick, transgression involves conscious choices required for his own survival and to preserve those to whom he owes ethical debts.

Troy stoops from the sublime to the imperialist grotesque; as a war epic, it slides into the mock-heroic. The hackneyed device of falling temple statues in the final scenes of Troy's sack is laughable relief: the fraud is ending. The most important closure lies exterior to the film; what did not happen politically in Troy is as important as those that did. No attempt at negation of cruelty and violence occurs in its script or plot action, and this is where narrative ethics lay. The Trojan War did not take place, Giraudoux wrote in La guerre de Troie n'aura pas lieu (1935), during a descent into global conflict. Using Giraudoux's trope, Baudrillard pronounced that the Gulf War did not take place either. In the midst of political collapses into mass violence, ironic dramatizations and counter-theorizations contest those collapses. Troy refuses to engage with these interpretive possibilities; it embraces Bush culture whole-heartedly.

Film screens the politics of war, and today's Clausewitzes know it. A politics that can defeat the social forces that the presidency of George W. Bush embodies is one that can recognize and re-enunciate the opposition to American empire lodged within The Chronicles of Riddick and narratives where weak oppose strong. It will recognize the difference between the exhibitionistic violence-marketing of Troy and the resistance to empire in The Chronicles of Riddick.

*   *  *

Visit the websites for Troy and The Chronicles of Riddick.

A Turkish version of this essay appeared in GerginDergi (August 16, 2004).

Tomasz Kitlinski is a lecturer in philosophy at the Department of Philosophy, Maria Sklodowska-Curie University, Lublin, Poland. Joe Lockard is assistant professor of American literature at Arizona State University. They wish to thank Charlie Bertsch and Thyrza Goodeve for comments on this essay. 

Copyright © 2004 by Tomasz Kitlinski and Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.

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