or ‘Young Men Are Dying For It’
or ‘Don’t Mention the Chasms’
When I complain about the ideological message of this or that text, am I not tacitly admitting that Mary Whitehouse had a point? After all, isn’t the worry ultimately about the effect it will have?
We know that cultural artifacts influence people enormously. Moreover, most of us (and I definitely include myself in this) get most of our most deeply embedded ideas and assumptions about the world from fictional media rather than non-fiction. The News has a great influence on our ideas about the world… but, as Aristotle said, Tragedy is a great deal more philosophical than History because History treats of what happened whereas Tragedy treats of the kinds of things that happen, or that we think happen. Fiction is largely about representing our ideas about how people work and act in our society, about how they function in the world, and make the world, and interact with it. It is inherently social because to partake of fiction is to interact with all sorts of other people and social processes, and to take away from fiction an understanding of the world which then changes our interactions with it. This is one reason why unjust representations are such a big deal.
Fiction, I would argue, thus has a moral aspect baked into it. News, of course, partakes of all sorts of moral assumptions, and transmits all sorts of moral notions – often unconsciously to both journalist and consumer – but its essential claim is to represent fact, even if this is often spurious. Part of the appeal of fiction is that it bypasses fact and addresses itself to the socially ontological, to our notions of how the world is rather than the specific things which happen in it. Moreover, it directly addresses itself to morality, to our notions of justice and injustice. All fiction does this, whatever its content, because the act of reading or watching fiction is the act of imaginative empathy, of questioning oneself about how one would act if placed in the same position as the characters. (It’s important to note, in passing, that this is a great deal more complex than any platitude about ‘identification’.) This is partly why fiction is a great deal more popular than non-fiction.
Fiction is also crafted to appeal directly at a pre-rational, emotional level which by-passes intellectual judgements, at least as a first move (which is why you can be moved by utter trash). This is why its so immensely pleasurable, and also therefore so incredibly formative and influential. We’re also socialised to learn the art of reading (book or visual narrative) much earlier than we are taught to learn critical thinking or engagement with non-fiction. Stories are, after all, a form of play, and the role of play and games – experimentation ideally without fear of failure – in child socialisation is huge. So yeah, fiction has a terrific influence on how we think, how we view the world, society, other people, etc, on our normative assumptions about it, and on our moral judgements about it.
Part of how ideology works, as I’ve already noted elsewhere, is that it creates a kind of hegemonic ‘common sense’ through the reiteration of ideas and representations that seem, as Aristotle would’ve said, ‘philosophical’, i.e. they seem to speak the ontological facts of life in society. You don’t even have to believe ideology to be impacted by it, if you think it expresses a fact of life. A crude example: you might disagree with a war your government is engaged in, but if you think that everyone around you is embedded in a hegemonic common sense idea that the war is necessary, you’re much less likely to protest. Everyone in Merak’s ward on Atrios is probably replete with reasons to curse the war against Zeos, and the Marshal, but the drama on they watch on TV represents the common sense of their society, the baseline normality, the expression of hegemonic assumptions. And it taps directly into their emotions. So they just sit there, allowing the normal operation of daily life to go ahead, despite the fact that the normal operation of daily life is insane and leading to armageddon.
To the extent that Mary Whitehouse’s view has any intellectual basis at all, it is in a crude kind of moral behaviourism which posits that humans are basically wind-up toys waiting to be pushed in this or that direction. We know that people don’t work like that. However, that is definitely not to say that the drip-drip-drip of ideology in fiction doesn’t foster attitudes, beliefs, assumptions, and behaviour. If they didn’t care what we think, and if they didn’t think that how we think can be managed, they wouldn’t put so much care into managing what we think. I’m not saying that all ideological production is conscious and deliberate; much of it is automatic, an emergent property of the culture of hierarchy. But diversions from the automatic production of the right kind of ideology, when they happen, are quickly noticed and addressed… even if the people doing it don’t always have the best handle on their real motives, c.f. Mary Whitehouse.
Aside from anything else, Mary Whitehouse was too blitheringly unconscious of her own real imperatives to really grapple with what bothered her about TV representations. I think her objections to sex on TV speak eloquently to her unconscious problems all by themselves, but they are also related to her objections to violence… not least because, in our culture, sex and violence are worryingly linked. (Twas ever thus in hierarchical and patriarchal societies based on contempt for the oppressed… though we’re generally a tad less extreme about it than ancient slave societies, where the natural accompaniment to an afternoon at the games, watching conquered people fighting to the death or being torn to pieces by animals, was a visit to the nearest slave-stocked brothel.) No, Mary was bothered by both sex and violence because, on the most basic level, she was bothered by any mass display which threatened to disturb the lovely appearance of tranquillity and harmony in society. Reactionaries of her stripe are generally not at all bothered by the actual splits and fissures and chasms and abyssals within society, but only by the recognition and acknowledgement of them, by the threat of them being uncovered and de-occluded. She was so upset by the idea of such possible uncoverings and de-occlusions that she even hid from herself the true nature of her unease about images in Doctor Who. She thought the problem with the end of ‘Deadly Assassin’ episode 3 was that kids would think the Doctor had his head under water for a week, and would (naturally) try to copy this and drown themselves, or their baby sisters. Actually, of course, Mary is uneasy about this story for other reasons… reasons that a febrile reactionary could hardly miss but which a crude philistine could never articulate. Another example of this sort of thing is the policemen having their faces ripped off to reveal Autons beneath in ‘Terror of the Autons’. This would supposedly prove dangerous because children would be made less willing to go to the good old fashioned British bobby to ask for help. Actually, what is being fretted over here is the submerged knowledge that there are already a great many people in British society who rightly fear and distrust the good old British bobby.
And yet the temptation to pick at scabs is always there. The bourgeois managers and regulators of ideological production and dissemination are always tempted to peek under their band-aids at the fetid wounds they try to hide, and to study our faces for our possible awareness that we are wounded and septic. In this they resemble nothing so much as a guilty lover repeatedly asking their partner “What’s the matter?” despite not really wanting to hear the grievance or get into the argument again. They know that there are tensions. They don’t want those tensions acknowledged because it will upset the mood (which was fine for them until someone started making trouble). Still less do they want the tensions resolved (because the only way to resolve them would be by removing the injustice that produced them). But nor can they settle when they know that someone in the house is seething with resentment. That’s what Mary Whitehouse is like when she complains about this or that bit of sex and violence on TV. “Why can’t we all just get along? What’s wrong with just having a nice, quiet life?” And all the rest of the world has to do to satisfy this request is stop admitting that the world isn’t perfect just as it is.
To pick on poor old Iron Man again… that film is a perfect example of anxious picking at scabs, performed by a culture industry dominated by the kind of ideological hegemony that just doesn’t see why we can’t all just stop worrying and love the bombs. It’s a War on Terror movie without the War on Terror in it (in any recognisable form). It’s a movie about America at war in which America never fights. It’s a movie about Americans making weapons for Americans, in which no Americans ever use any weapons… except for one superhero, who uses his arsenal of devastating weapons for moral purposes, blasting the baddies cleanly and tidily off the screen without shedding any messy old blood.
It’s obvious to point out that Iron Man presents itself in the context of the War on Terror without once engaging critically with it, beyond vague gestures, formed of pure performative hand-waving, which give the impression of engagement without actually delivering any. In this, despite my somewhat puckish decision to single it out, the film is normal rather than unusual. Iron Man is distinguished from a crowd of similar movies by its popularity rather than by anything much else. Naturally, it doesn’t tackle criticisms of the War on Terror, still less make any. Why would it? None of the War on Terror movies did.
The public logic behind not tackling such issues is always the same. The film would fail. People don’t want to see that kind of thing in entertainment movies. (Don’t mention the chasm!) But this is, quite simply, crap. The very widespread queasiness about the War on Terror and humanitarian intervention that the film goes to such lengths to paper-over is itself evidence of a worldwide audience for films which express anxiety about such things. Look at Fahrenheit 9/11. It’s never the revulsion of the public which causes film-makers or studios to strip their films of any controversial content (and only in an insane world could scepticism about the War on Terror ever be considered controversial). It’s primarily a concentration of ideological conservatism in the elites who control the megabucks movie industry. When I see those warnings at the start of DVDs about piracy not being a victimless crime, I always say that this is true… it’s just that the victims are scum. They control the ideological output of their empires pretty carefully, and films that somehow slip through the net get very deliberately targeted for burial. They’re prepared to make a loss on a film if they deem its ideology dangerously suspect. It’s as old as the hills, from Citizen Kane (1940) to Burn! (1969) to 1900 (1976) to Matewan (1987). Even the shambolic Ishtar (1987) got itself killed by the studio for mentioning that the CIA conspires with Middle Eastern despots to keep Arab peoples subjugated. Remember the onslaught in the media against Oliver Stone for JFK (1991), which began even before the film was finished in post-production. It had the nerve to talk about the military industrial complex and Vietnam (admittedly in what turned out to be factually compromised ways) and so had to be smeared. Mysteriously, given the conventional wisdom about ‘political’ or ‘controversial’ films always bombing at the box office, JFK was a commercial success. And there’s also the perennial issue of what constitutes controversy or politics anyway. Something is deemed ‘political’ or ‘controversial’ when it deviates from established orthodox thinking, in other words: from ideology. Mark Gatiss justified the treatment of Churchill as an unimpeachable hero in ‘Victory of the Daleks’ on the grounds that Doctor Who is no place for politics… as if adulation of a politician (and warmongering imperialist) were somehow apolitical.
We’re back to ideology again. This is how it works. Ideas that prop up wealth and power get propagated by the media because the media is a concentration of wealth and power. The media turns them into an all-encompassing web of normalised assumptions masquerading as neutral common sense, simply by virtue of their prevalence. The very prevalence creates the impression of certainly highly slanted ideas as ‘normal’ or ‘neutral’. Thus anything that diverges is seen as evidence of an agenda. Of course.
So much of what is conjured up by the current culture industries seems designed to resuscitate certain ideas, or to put them on life support. Ideology can, of course, often work like air being frenetically pumped into a burst tire, stopping it deflating even as it haemorrhages the oxygen that supports it.
(Interesting isn’t it, by the way, how the verb ‘haemorrhage’ has started to take on metaphorical implications of drastic leakage quite unrelated to its actual meaning… rather like the word ‘penury’ appears to have started to take on the meaning ‘miserliness’ in some parts of America, as if the concept of people actually being genuinely poor is so ideologically unacceptable that synonyms for ‘poverty’ must be redefined in order to remain utterable… an outrageous irony in a society so riven by drastic and visible inequality… but then what were we saying earlier about people being happy to tolerate the chasm as long as everyone skips over it without admitting that it’s there?)
Lots of high-profile movies and TV shows have been pumping air back into the burst tire of the War on Terror since almost day one. The movies I’m talking about are not the outliers like Brian de Palma’s Redacted (2007), which is extremely queasy about some of the conduct of American soldiers in Iraq, even if it is ultimately “pro troops” as one of the producers claimed. Nor am I talking about the slew of documentaries which came out, many of which are quite good. Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) is an outlier amongst outliers… and its tremendous success gives the lie to the idea that there’s no market for straightforwardly negative depictions of the War on Terror. I’m talking about stuff like Lions for Lambs (2007), The Hurt Locker (2008), and Green Zone (2010). None of these movies could be said to be pro-Iraq war or pro-War on Terror in any straightforward sense. Indeed, that’s very much the point of them. The purpose and draw of such movies is that they claim and purport to offer a nuanced view of politically and morally complex events.
Now, I’d never dream of denying that the War on Terror was politically complex, nor would I wish to say that war is ever anything less than morally complex. But where such movies present moral complexity, they tend to be masking relatively simple and obvious political and moral principles behind a fug of nuance and more-grown-up-than-thou ruefulness about the complicated mess that is ‘the real world’. But such allegedly complex issues tend to actually be little more than the overcomplicated restatement of glib truisms, whereas the actual fundamental issues are as neglected as they are simple and obvious. The real historical and factual record of say, the West’s interactions with Iraq – Saddam as a CIA creature, arms sales to him when he was ‘our’ regional ally, the indiscriminate slaughter of the first Gulf War, the genocidal UN sanctions pushed through by the US and UK leading to the foreseeable deaths of more than a million people, the provable non-existence of WMD in Iraq even before the invasion, etc etc – is ignored in favour of concentration upon the complex feelings of American soldiers as they struggle to do good in the ‘mess’ of Iraq. Largely ignored are elementary notions such as that it is obviously wrong to attack, invade and occupy someone else’s country without provocation or necessity, using false pretences; that it is obviously wrong to brutalise that country’s population, loot their economy, destabilise the entire region, and kill possibly more than a million people in the process. These obvious and pertinent matters are lost, elephants misplaced in a room full of billowing clouds of faux-complexity and crypto-nuance. And thus the obscenity that should be self-evident can be evaded, and the endless war can continue, with the aggressors secure in the knowledge that they have agonised over it like the good people they are. This is how people can see the obvious when other people do horrific things, but not when they themselves do them. This is how people can be scandalised by Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, and consider the US’s multiple invasions of Iraq as blessed moral quests. It goes without saying that ‘we’ are the good guys, ergo what ‘we’ do must be at least well-intentioned, by definition. Even if we later come to think it was a ‘mistake’, surely ‘we’ meant well. The kinds of films I’m talking about are a key part of the process whereby people accept these premises. Remember, ideology doesn’t have to be convincing, it just has to constitute itself as all-embracing. One crucial way in which this is achieved is by controlling the parameters of the debate. You can write off a Michael Moore film, or a Noam Chomsky book, as ‘political’, as the kinds of people who say that kind of stuff saying that kind of stuff as usual, as long as you have what looks like a range of opinions within the mainstream. Films like The Hurt Locker create the appearance of self-flagellatingly honest soul-searching going on… and surely this is the proper way to do it, with a questioning attitude rather than knee-jerk peacenik ideology, right? Hence, also, the idea that Western capitalist countries have fearless, questing, anti-authority journalists who regularly rake politicians over the coals. That’s how you control the debate. Fox News on the Right, the Washington Post on the Left, and shades of grey in between. How grown up. How adult. How complex. How nuanced. Everything that raises radical questions about the fundamental nature of Western ‘democracies’ can be safely shunted off into a little disreputable side-space called the ‘extreme’. No matter how well-sourced or well-supported the arguments of the extreme, they are just being ‘political’. No matter how drastic the horrors supported by the mainstream, that’s where you find real debate and discourse. (“Sit. Down. And. Talk,” sayeth the Doctor.)
It’s arguable that, for all the gestures to nuance, the more ostensibly ‘thoughtful’ films made about what we might call ‘Iraq etc.’ are essentially worse than anything made by Cannon in the 80s in which Chuck Norris blows away hordes of bloodthirsty Cubans and Nicaraguans, or screeching Muslim terrorists with AK47s. Because they are no less illusory and hallucinatory in their ideological addresses; they’re just more subtle about it. And, unlike Chuck’s epics, they exist now, for our present context.
Iron Man is simultaneously the most open and the most hidden of all these kinds of films. I think an interesting route into why and how lies in examining what it means to be a ‘comic book movie’ in the 2000s. Whether they are ‘serious’ like the Nolan films, or jollier like the films of the Avengers franchise, the modern comic book movie fights the same battle to be… well, the correct word is hard to pin down. It isn’t quite ‘serious’ or ‘realistic’… I think ‘plausible’ is the best word, as long as we understand this to mean ‘plausible as a modern movie’ rather than ‘plausible as something that could actually happen’. It speaks to the paradoxical way in which comic book concepts are eminently adaptable and popular with moviegoers, but also edged with a seemingly eternal hint of the ‘un-movieish’, owing to their origins in a fundamentally different medium, and a very different mode of address, itself based in different eras with very different expectations of media. To be frank: there’s something daft about comic book characters, and the daftness is of a sort that modern media cannot tolerate while still looking itself in the face. The producers of modern media are so self-aware, so self-conscious… they need the bat ears to be made as small as they can possibly be, without actually being removed entirely (which would obviate the brand).
The art of achieving this ‘plausibility’ is now well-honed. The adaptation of the comic book concepts to modern standards of is done with just the right amount of tinkering, and with just the right amount of fidelity to the original concepts. The aesthetics of Iron Man himself illustrate this. The appearance of the character is developed so as to look ’plausibly’ like some kind of ‘possible’ notional technological development. Iron Man needs to be able to fly. The underlying ontology of the MCU is ostensibly non-supernatural, i.e. it presents itself as stopping short of any hesitancy on the part of the viewer as to the category of the Fantastic. It is SF rather than Fantasy or the uncanny. Aliens exist as a material reality; ghosts don’t. The concepts employed in these stories are as ludicrous in terms of what is actually possible as can be, but they claim – within the text – to exist within a natural material universe. The gods of Asgard are aliens not actual supernatural beings, etc. So, to be crude, Iron Man must be able to fly because Science. The effects sequences and design concepts which express the narrative conceit of flying are pitched to a level of perfection which allows the viewer to accept Tony Stark flying around in the air, unsupported by anything other than a flying suit of armour… a suit of armour which, by the way, is simultaneously near-impregnable and light enough to let him ascend to the outer atmosphere, lifted by rockets in his feet and hands. This is achieved aesthetically, with the brilliantly mimicked blue flames of rocket exhausts bursting from him, etc. In a related way, the iconic red and yellow colour of the character is adhered to with ‘faithfulness’ but also explained diegetically as a self-indulgent whim of Tony’s, thus transforming the now seemingly arbitrary comic book aesthetics into something that modern audiences will accept as stemming from character, and thus as believable. This is all terribly crucial to the success of a project such as a ‘serious’ comic book adaptation. Adaptations such as Iron Man cannot trade in the kind of camp, ironic, arch, self-awareness which characterises the 60s Batman TV show. They can’t do the brazen meta that Adam West and Burt Ward did. They must square the circle of presenting comic book concepts and aesthetics within a formally ‘realist’ or ‘naturalist’ visual narrative. Apart from anything else, the kind of modern cinematic CGI-based spectacle upon which today’s action films depend for their effectiveness cannot be doing with knowing, brazen artifice. Get it wrong and the structure collapses. Efface or deny the comic book concepts and aesthetics too much and the film ceases to meaningfully be a comic book adaptation. Fail to reconfigure or ‘justify’ them in ways which seem ‘natural’ or ‘believable’ to modern audiences and the film looks naff, arbitrary, and head-scratchingly odd. This circle must be squared so that modern multiplex audiences accept the film’s content without sneering, and to allow for the kind of spectacle that films of this kind trade in these days.
But the really interesting thing is that this kind of circle-squaring must also be done so that the films can make claims to ideological plausibility. The films make claims about the real world which allow them to present themselves as believable. Just as the aesthetics must be judged so as to contextualise Iron Man’s ability to fly in such a way that the audience will accept it as ‘believable’ within a ‘realist’ narrative, so also must the ideological claims, i.e. the claims about what constitutes a ‘realistic’ depiction of the conduct of American troops and/or terrorists in the theatre of the War on Terror. Again, the artifice is no less there, but cannot admit to its own existence. The straight face must be held.
Naturally, the claims to ‘realism’ are made by making the representations conform to all-encompassing and hegemonic ideas of common sense about such issues. For instance, in Iron Man the American troops are well-meaning, well-intentioned young people, just trying to do their best and serve their country in the midst of a dirty mess. The higher echelons of the army are also well-intentioned, wishing to promote the moral and democratic values of the United States, but are hemmed in by the dirty demands of politics, or the irrational and cynical antagonism of the media, or the unreasoning fanatical ruthlessness of the enemy. The problem out there in the Middle East is fundamentally caused by criminal gangs of brutal, uncivilised, ruthless, cynical foreigners with designs on world domination; simultaneous fundamentalists and nihilists who are fundamentally un-Western and opposed to Western values… which are, naturally, it is assumed, a real thing rather than just the false, self-congratulatory rhetoric of an empire. These representations ground the film in a view of the ‘real world’ which is soaked in ideology, obtained from elsewhere in the media. TV News, newspapers, other films, fictional TV shows, etc. The reiteration of these ideological assumptions in Iron Man works to make the film ‘plausible’ while also, of course, reinforcing the very ideology it employs.
Again though, there’s another layer to this, which is that a vital part of the effort at authenticity lies in the gestures made towards the idea that, contra the enormously simplistic and comforting assumptions which tacitly underwrite the story, the world is actually a very complex place full of unresolvable ambiguities. (See those artsy, ‘intelligent’ War on Terror movies mentioned above.) For instance, Iron Man features repeated instances of people confronting Tony with questions about the morality of arms dealing, whereupon he will respond with something about the Manhattan Project. This issue is framed as a ‘debate’ with points on both sides. The actual effect is that we can thus consign such obvious horror to the memory hole with a sigh of “well, it’s a tricky one…” In the world of Iron Man, the needless horror of Hiroshima is accepted a necessity and moral boon without question. It always is in such bourgeois morality plays, never mind that elsewhere they will excoriate anyone who says “the ends justify the means” as a cold-hearted fanatic. So when Tony mentions the Manhattan Project, we are to understand this as a reference to a noble endeavour which ended the Second World War and saved American lives… the perfect counterbalance to liberal qualms about making and selling weapons. The reality of the history in question need not trouble the writers or audience. When facts tell against the obvious common sense of hegemonic ideology, they may be safely ignored – indeed, it is necessary to ignore them in order to stay apparently sane. Hiroshima here becomes the ideological equivalent of some particularly good CGI. Just as the blue flames conjured up on a computer somewhere erase the problem of ‘realism’ and plausibility posed by Tony’s aerial antics, so the mere mention of the Manhattan Project erase the problem of the morality of arms dealing. Remember, the open-endedness of the ideological fix, which is the equivalent of the obvious artificiality of the blue flames, is not a problem. It suffices that the issue has been addressed, and addressed moreover in a way that looks like it satisfies, or could plausibly satisfy, somebody, some implied authoritative writer or viewer.
But, of course, the end point of all this picking at the scabs of political unease, all this intense effort to present reassuring assumptions as at least ‘plausible’, lies in the perpetuation of (at least) public toleration for current imperialist policy. Films like this don’t generally make members of the public go out and kill people they think look like terrorists (though such things do happen… Zero Dark Thirty made plenty of racists tweet about how they came out of the cinema wanting to go and kill Muslims) but they undoubtedly play some role in reassuring people about the necessity of conducting foreign wars… or at least making people feel helpless when it comes to opposing them, dwarfed by a massive and towering wall of ideological ‘common sense’.
Mary Whitehouse selected the wrong targets, and targeted them for the wrong reasons. Her concern, whether she knew it or not, was to protect the wrong people and the wrong structures of power. She was a victim-blamer who bleated about violence on TV because it rippled the surface of the placid pool she wanted society to be, without ever noticing the people being held under the surface of that pool, drowning… or noticing them and thinking that was the right place for them, and only wishing they’d keep still and stop making unsightly waves. Mary would doubtless have been horrified by Iron Man, complaining about how it depicts violence and implied sex in front of the kiddy-winkies, without worrying about how it normalises war. Mary would doubtless also have been horrified by ‘The Zygon Inv’ too, by how scary it would be for the little ones. And yet, in a way that betrays and negates everything she ever believed and stood for, yes, she had a point. These texts raise the issue of the chasms and splits and fissures and abyssals in society, of the people drowning under the placid surface of the pond. They raise the issue in order to reassure us that the issue has been addressed; that someone authoritative somewhere has thought this all through; that there are points on both sides; that there’s a debate under way; that there’s a case to be made for either view should we wish to go and find it; that we are a morally-engaged culture; that there are all sorts of nuances and complexities… and, meanwhile, the bombs keep falling and the drones keep flying.
Are we really so different to that hallucinatory little boy who held his sister’s head under water in Mary’s feverish fantasy?