I’m not a movie person. I used to be, when I lived in San Francisco and going to movies offered delightful experiences ranging from the mini-mall of the Kabuki Theater to the cozy popcorn of the Red Vic. Here in Michigan, though, the experience is not so magical. Nevertheless, because I once hung out with folks hipper than I am, I have a remarkable habit of going to the opening weekend showings of the Wachowski Brother films, including V for Vendetta.
I can’t vouch for V for Vendetta’s interpretation of the Alan Moore graphic novel (and I’m frankly glad that my graphic novelist friend probably won’t read this post). But I can vouch for V for Vendetta’s interpretation of Count of Monte Cristo. Whether intentionally or not, the movie succeeds in doing something the original serialized novel did (and few appropriations since have done well)–use a pop culture medium to meditate on the most just relationship between the state and individual. In this post, I’ll explain some of the political background of the Count of Monte Cristo as a way to explain how clever V for Vendetta’s appropriation of the Monte Cristo tale is. I’ve given a spoiler alert below, so if you want to read the bit on Monte Cristo, you’ll know where you need to stop before you get to the V for Vendetta stuff.
Napoleon as a Background to Monte Cristo
Most people don’t realize this about Count of Monte Cristo. But it was a remarkably politically charged book. Consider, first of all, the premise. Edmond Dantes is imprisoned, and through that process of imprisonment, becomes superhuman, the cipher that is the Count of Monte Cristo. But the reason for Dantes’ imprisonment–in a book appearing during the troubled period leading up to 1848 and soon thereafter Louis-Napoleon’s Second Empire–is an association with Napoleon. That is, a perceived connection with Napoleon Bonaparte set off a process that produced a figure every bit as superhuman as Bonaparte himself, one who managed to deliver justice in the corrupt world of July Monarchy Paris.
And that was not a mistake. The Count of Monte Cristo was first published from 1844 to 1845 in the era’s equivalent of the Wall Street Journal–the banker’s paper, the paper most supportive of France’s Orleans government. Not long before the serialization of Monte Cristo, the newspaper published another serial novel, The Mysteries of Paris, that featured another such superhuman character and also drawing an explicit connection to Bonaparte. The novels were two of the most popular and best-compensated books of the pre-1848 period. Remarkably, both used this organ of the governing party to present a challenge to it.
But it was not just this newspaper; every major paper in Paris serialized some kind of Napoleon narrative in their feuilleton section: the memoirs of one of Napoleon’s relatives, the retelling of one incident from his life. Even minor, individual feuilleton essays used Napoleon’s name as a means to talk about desirable characteristics. My favorite is a feuilleton reporting the results of the weekly horse race at Bois de Boulogne; the feuilleton used the description of one horse to hail the qualities of Napoleon, leaving ambiguous, of course, whether it referred to the horse named Napoleon or the man of the same name. The invocation of Napoleon was almost omnipresent in the feuilleton sections where Monte Cristo first appeared. It was as if, today, every TV channel featured series about JFK at the same time, implying a Kennedy was the only solution to our woes.
The omnipresence of Napoleon did not happen by accident. The censorship laws of the day (enforced by Janet Jackson’s boob-type fines) forbade any mention of the word Bourbon or Republic, as well as any explicit criticism of the king or a member of his government. If you wanted to complain, the legally available way to do so was to invoke Napoleon.
What many of these narratives effectively explored was the means by which a superhuman Napoleonic character could bring justice to an increasingly industrialized bourgeois society. In the earlier serial novel, Mysteries of Paris, the Napoleonic main character Rodolphe was basically a pop socialist, coaching the poor to visualize their dreams, then delivering those dreams. Perhaps not incidentally, Louis-Napoleon had recently published a socialist tract, every bit as dreamy as Rodolphe’s promises. Alexandre Dumas went one step further, actually visiting Louis-Napoleon in jail (he had been jailed after a coup attempt) just before Dumas began writing Monte Cristo. And while Monte Cristo was not quite as popular, in its day, as Mysteries of Paris, the Napoleon figure depicted in it more closely resembles the benevolent dictator Louis-Napoleon would claim to be.
There’s a reason why these novels used Napoleonic figures, beyond the censorsip laws. The French were seeking a way to merge the individual created by the Rights of Man with the unity of Louis XIV, whose famous statement “L’Etat, C’est moi” effectively claimed the state and the sovereign to be one. The reign of Louis Phillipe, who legally ruled under the novel formulation “King of the French,” just wasn’t delivering (though the failure had as much to do with his embrace of bourgeois capitalism as it did with any legal basis for his power). Napoleon Bonaparte–at once a leader who embodied the nation as had Louis XIV, and the consummate individual who succeeded through merit–offered a way to achieve both unified nation and individual. The novelistic Napoleonic reincarnations were effectively meditations on how to accomplish that formula again.
V for Vendetta, the Individual, the State
That’s the aspect of the Count of Monte Cristo that V for Vendetta has managed to recreate so well. The fascist nation depicted in the movie thrives on dehumanization. V is at once the product of that dehumanization and the refutation of it. He is not only stronger than the state, he cherishes all the trappings of individuality with his taste in music, movies, art. And because of these characteristics (and because he exposes the lies of power, something else that Monte Cristo did), V succeeds in having the entire nation identify with him.
The revelation of identity is central to the Count of Monte Cristo. Indeed, it is the way he metes out judgment. He has to do no more than reveal his identity to his three enemies to defeat them utterly, as he does here with Comte de Morcerf, the man who stole his fiancee, when he begs Monte Cristo to reveal his true identity:
‘I admit that I am known to you, but I do not know you, you adventurer, smothered in gold and precious stones! In Paris you call yourself the Count of Monte Cristo. In Italy, Sinbad the Sailor. In Malta–who knows what? I have forgotten. What I ask from you is your real name. I want to know your true name, in the midst of these hundred false names, so that I can say it on the field of combat as I plunge my sword in your heart.’
‘Fernand!’ Monte Cristo cried. ‘Of my hundred names, I shall need to tell you only one to strike you down. But you can already guess that name, can’t you? Or, rather, you can recall it. For in spite of all my woes, in spite of all my tortures, I can now show you a face rejuvenated by the joy of revenge, a face that you must have seen often in your dreams since your marriage … your marriage to my fiancee, Mercedes!’
The general, his head thrown back, his hands held out, his eyes staring, watched this dreadful spectacle in silence. Then, reaching out for the wall and leaning on it, he slid slowly along it to the door, out of which he retreated backwards, giving this one, single, lugubrious, lamentable, heart-rending cry: ‘Edmond Dantes!’
Realizing Monte-Cristo’s identity–realizing that this super-human man worthy of respect is the same ordinary man that he cheated many years earlier–is enough to make Morcerf kill himself.
There is this aspect of identity in V’s revenge. He always makes sure his victims recognize him (though he remains nameless) before he kills them, so their last moments are the horror of realizing the creation of their own crimes has been their undoing.
But there’s another aspect of identity, “showing a face,” as Monte Cristo says, that V for Vendetta displaces. For V’s mask sets a narrative expectation in the same way a gun does; we expect a gun shown early in a movie to be shot before that movie ends, we expect a mask to be raised and the face underneath revealed. Yet V for Vendetta frustrates this expectation. Several times, the movie presents us with a moment that, traditionally, would be the unmasking. Yet even when Evey asks V to remove his mask, he refuses to do so. V never does it, he never reveals his face.
Instead, the average people do. The average people, cast to look like you and I–or like you and I would look if we were Brits. Old people, girls in coke-bottle glasses, people who are not Hollywood beauty. The narrative expectation that V will find justice at the moment of his unmasking is resolved only when the crowd of nameless average people raise their mask and reveal themselves in all their individuality.
V for Vendetta offers neither a novel alternative to fascism nor a really well developed one, philosophically or politically. It is no more than a promise that individuals, acting in solidarity, can replace the oppressive state.
But it appropriates and overturns the tradition of the Count of Monte Cristo in a remarkable way. It removes the central Napoleon figure, making his identity secondary to the delivery of justice. It takes a narrative that has been used to lobby for the return of a dictator and flips that into an embrace of the common man.
Francis Fukuyama wants you to know that he’s no longer associated with Neo-Conservatism. Nope, he’s done with it.
Neoconservatism, as both a political symbol and a body of thought, has evolved into something I can no longer support.
I appreciate the public disavowal of the movement. But Fukuyama still doesn’t get it. He imagines the intentions of the Neo-Conservatives were good, and that it was just dumb luck and inaccurate intelligence that doomed those intentions, and with them, the credibility of the movement.
But successful pre-emption depends on the ability to predict the futureaccurately and on good intelligence, which was not forthcoming, whileAmerica’s perceived unilateralism has isolated it as never before.
This is a convenient self-deception, that the shitty intelligence and the inaccurate predictions were unmotivated. Here’s Paul Pillar in Foreign Affairs, a journal I’d wager Fukuyama reads quite closely.
There’s been a lively discussion about labels recently–particularly as more true conservatives attempt to create a position from which to oppose Bush without ceding their identity as conservatives. It’s a discussion I’ve been thinking a lot about, not least because I’m dabbling with an argument that we need to think of the "Conservative Movement" as a more cohesive, intentional whole. These thoughts, plus my recent obsession with Texas Royalty, makes me want to argue strongly for the term "Neo-Feudalist."
One of the problems–both for the left, and those true conservatives seeking to distance themselves from Bush–is that no one has challenged the misnomer "Conservative Movement." There is nothing conservative about what BushCo are trying to pull off–he’s trying to radically alter the structure of our government and society, in the process cynically capitalizing on conservative moral values while violating those values himself. And BushCo doesn’t aspire to anything so impermanent as a movement. (Though I do wonder whether they cling to the word "movement" in deference to Michael Ledeen’s belief that the Italian fascist movement was all good, it was just the regime that went bad.) We on the left would do well to avoid accepting this frame for their efforts. And the true conservatives really deserve to have their word "conservative" back, without the taint that it has acquired from its Movement and Neo appendages.
And in search for a term that more accurately describes their plan, I’m settling on Neo-Feudalist.
I’ve always been curious about the Gary Schmitt and Abram Shulsky (S&S) essay “Leo Strauss and the World of Intelligence (By Which We Do Not Mean Nous).” But I was too lazy to hunt it down. Now that Pat Lang has helpfully provided a link (PDF), I’ve finally read it.
There are several analyses of the essay’s implications for intelligence gathering. Lang provides a historically-grounded one from David Habbakuk (PDF). Tom Barry analyzes the concrete implications of S&S’s thought for intelligence. Seymour Hersh addresses it briefly here in the context of the Office of Special Plans.
None of these analyses consider how close S&S come in this essay to admitting the similarities between Straussian thought and postmodernism–or what that admission portends for our intelligence programs. I’d like to make the case that S&S articulate the stance of Utlitarian Postmodernists in this essay and that the essay is a recipe for the creation and manipulation of narratives rather than a program for a different kind of intelligence program.
S&S first bring up postmodernism to discredit criticisms of Strauss’s esoteric reading.
Many critics argued that it gave license for fanciful and arbitrary interpretation of texts; once one asserted that an author’s true views might be the opposite of those that appear on the surface of his writings, it might seem that the sky was the limit in terms of how far from the author’s apparent views one could wander. However, the deeper reason for the unpopularity of this doctrine was different; after all, Strauss was a piker compared to the very popular (at least for a while) doctrine of deconstructionism which gave readers complete carte blanche when it came to interpreting texts, and which completely lacked the rigor Strauss brought to the problem of textual interpretation.
Habbakuk notes how ridiculous this logic is. Whatever the failures of deconstruction, proving its failures (which S&S don’t do) does not make a case for the strengths of Straussian analysis.
Frankly, much desconstructionist analysis is shoddy. But a good deal of it is incredibly rigorous. Indeed, good deconstruction offers a means of discovering just the kind of hidden meaning that I understand Strauss’s followers to seek. With one important distinction–the role of intention. Straussians treat this esoteric reading as intentional, whereas deconstruction does not assume the author’s intention is primary or even necessary at all.
Now, the real failure of deconstructionism and other postmodernist approaches to analysis is not so much the leeway they offer (that’s a factor of academic self-discipline rather than the method itself). Rather, it’s the way they endorse a kind of passivity. The object of postmodern analysis, in most instances, goes no further than observation. You point to the structures of power inherent to the texts that make up our reality and … that’s about it. You get tenure, write three more books making such observations, and retire with your fourth wife, a former graduate student of yours, in the South of France.
None of the great postmodern theorists took the obvious next step: Admit that (at least within the realm of power–I’ll leave the refutations of gravity to others) competing narratives can and do have the power to create reality, regardless of the veracity of those narratives. And then tell people how they can use that observation to change the existing power structures.
Perhaps this failure had to do with the postmodernist approach to intention, the belief that authors cannot fully execute their own intentions. If you believe the author has limited power, then why advocate for a more politically engaged role for authors?
But the Straussians, with their opposite approach to intention, have gone the next logical step, taken an observation about the way narratives affect power, and used it to accumulate power themselves. Thus the moniker, Utilitarian Postmodernism.
Which is what I think S&S admit they’re doing when they make their second mention of postmodernism.
Rather, the dissatisfaction was political in origin; the notion of esoteric writing is clearly at odds with the main political tenet of the Enlightenment, i.e., that a good polity can be built on the basis of doctrines that not only are true but are also accessible: their truth can be “self-evident” (to quote the Declaration of Independence) to the average citizen. Even those post-moderns who no longer believe that it is possible to discover any truths at all on which a free polity might be based somehow still cling to freedom of speech, which was originally defended on the grounds that the propagation of anti-republican heresies can do no harm as long as pro-republican truths are left free to refute them.
Be this as it may, Strauss’s view certainly alerts one to the possibility that political life may be closely linked to deception. Indeed, it suggests that deception is the norm in political life, and the hope, to say nothing of the expectation, of establishing a politics that can dispense with it is the exception.
The first paragraph is a fair critique of Enlightenment aspirations. The Enlightenment (and, more recently, Jurgen Habermas) claim you can achieve more reasoned government by subjecting political decisions to scrutiny and rational debate. I don’t much care for S&S’s insinuation that the “average citizen” just can’t get much that transpires in political discussions. But I think they’re right–if your entire political system assumes a certain transparency, a truthfulness in argumentative statements, it leaves your system incredibly vulnerable to those who exploit this assumption and tell lies.
(Note, some of my academic work examines the non-rational, purportedly fictional interventions in the public sphere that Habermas ignores to make his historical claim that a golden age of rational speech once existed. Such study makes me confident that these interventions can be just as valuable–and potentially empowering–as Habermas’ favored true rational speech. So I disagree with S&S’s portrayal of the trap postmodernism gets into with democracy.)
But now look at what S&S are suggesting about their own, Straussian project. They use postmodernism to illustrate the problem that deception presents for democracy. And then they proclaim that deception is inevitable in political speech. You’d think they’d then say democracy is impossible. But they don’t do this.
Effectively, they’re admitting that democracy is vulnerable to manipulation by deceptive speech. But they’re going to exploit that vulnerability to their own advantage.
So what does this have to do with intelligence gathering?
The analyses I linked to above assume S&S advocate an intelligence that takes a different approach to discover the truth, but still tries to discover it. This still assumes intelligence practitioners will take the role of the postmodern academic–as passive observers. They assume that S&S are only disputing the method of analysis, rather than the role of intelligence in general. So, for example, Habbakuk shows the results that presuming deception rather evaluating deception may have had.
So it would come as no surprise to find disciples of Strauss inclined simply to take for granted that opponents are attempting to deceive them — rather than treating the possibility of deception as a hypothesis that needs to be tested. Ironically, moreover, when one is leading with murderous thugs and shameless rascals, precisely the difficult hypothesis to consider is often not that they are lying but that, however brazenly they may have lied in the past, in a given instance they are telling the truth. And prejudging the issue in such away can mean not simply a specific error — but the development of a question and answer complex which is radically false. So, for example, if one started off assuming that Saddam was concealing the existence of active weapons of mass destruction programmes, one would not explore the implications of the hypothesis that he had no such programmes. One implication of such a hypothesis, obviously, would be that evidence suggesting he had such programmes would necessarily be false. Accordingly, questions as to the intentions and purposes behind the false evidence would arise. Among the directions in which such an investigation would naturally lead would be towards the possibility that some of the evidence produced by Ahmed Chalabi originated in Iran. So the question and answer complex generated from hypotheses about Saddam would necessarily entail hypotheses about the policy of the government in Tehran.
Presuming Saddam is deceiving you may blind you to the possibility that he’s telling the truth, that he has no WMD (although I think the reality is different–to the extent the Neocons were fooled it’s because they assumed Saddam was deceiving in the most obvious way, hiding his WMDs, rather than considering the possibility that Saddam was deceptively pretending he was hiding WMDs).
But I’m arguing that OSP didn’t get fooled by Saddam or by Chalabi, as Habbakuk suggests. Rather, the critical deception was not Saddam’s or, by itself, Chalabi’s. It was that of OSP, which knowingly propagated Saddam’s and Chalabi’s deceptions to accomplish their goal–military intervention.
With their statements about postmodernism, S&S reveal their awareness of the implications that deceptive statements have for democracy. But they neither renounce their own brand of deceptive statement nor do they posit an alternative to democracy. And in the context of this awareness, they argue for a different kind of intelligence. Given this background, it seems S&S are arguing for an active, intelligence-producing role rather than intelligence gathering and analysis, no matter the method. And given what Shulsky’s OSP produced (literally, produced), this seems to be the more accurate reading.