A telling event happened in the theater a few months ago when I viewed The Manchurian Candidate remake. An audible gasp and bodily revulsion rippled throughout the audience during the scene where Raymond Shaw receives his updated brain implant. Now, this in itself is unsurprising, as an extreme closeup of such an invasive procedure often provokes such results. The event is odd, however, when juxtaposed with a succeeding scene in which Bennett Marco uses a knife to dig out an implant in his own shoulder blade. This scene produced some mild reactions, but remarkably subdued in comparison. The crude, awkward, bloody, and self-inflicted invasion of the second scene provided a stark counterpoint to the clinical, precise, bloodless, and other-inflicted invasion of the first.
So what can The Manchurian Candidate, and especially these two scenes, tell us about the current stage of spectacular politics? For one thing, the film reminds us of the pageantry of the electoral process. “Let’s put on a good show,” says an anonymous spectacle planner just as the campaign victory party is about to get underway. Both the two-bit children’s theater and the hyperreal victory pageant take place on election day, acting almost as a condensed history of the spectacle.
But what about the very fact of this Cold War film being remade at this point in history? What can we learn from the very event of reduxing? Instead of rewinding to 1962 (the year of the original) or 2000 (like the opening to Fahrenheit 911), let’s move back to the 1970s and shift locales to Italy. We don’t need to rely on pop culture to do this, as a number of theorists have recently speculated that we in the US may be experiencing a revival of “Laboratory Italy” (see Michael Hardt’s introduction to Radical Thought in Italy). Italy, renowned for renaissances, may now be producing another but not in its own nation-state. A number of indicators point towards this global renaissance: the renewed interest in autonomous marxism (and the dramatic success of Empire), the spectacular concern over terrorism, the increasing association of leftist dissent with terror (anybody remember coverage of the RNC?), the entwinement of shadowy extrapolitical groups with elected officials, and the growth of repressive domestic state forces.
What else might this renaissance bring with it? Unlike 1970s Italy, there will be no Great Compromise. The Great Excedrine Twins Kerry-Edwards (political tension relief) could not heal and rejuvenate at the same time. They sure took diddling in the middle to new heights though, outgunning the right with reactionary droppings like “renewal of faith” and “restoring trust,” all in the name of making “America strong again.” Their New Day by all accounts appeared to begin with “Morning in America.” This rhetorical interchangeability ran both ways: Bush-Cheney ads adopted “progressivist” language like “Vision for a New Future,” and “Moving America Forward”. Forwards, backwards: it makes one wonder if we just witnessed a new Political Reality TV program called Trading Candidates.
But now we have our resolution. Some might call it another renewal, even an Italian renaissance, but this time of the 1930s. What to do with this occasion? I have witnessed colleagues and comrades (who should know better) begin to warm up to Bush, citing his “conciliatory” tone in the days following his victory. How desperate these weary travelers are for healing! Having been traumatized by the crumbling of the Good Cop, they now turn to the only Face they recognize, and see in the Bad Cop’s triumphant grin a sign of their salve-ation. Let us not stay with this abusive patriarch, seeking from him the balm for his own tyranny. Leave that to the broken ones who desire mending only through reconciliation, and solicit love from their debaser. Don’t forget that among the soothing words uttered during his triumph-speech, the talking W called forth a “future that binds us together.” Historically astute listeners may recall that in Italian the word for both “bandage” and “bound up with” is fasciare. The Yee-hawsault on Fallujah is but the first event in this New Resolution: with US or against US (translation, behind the scope or in its crosshairs).
Instead let us look to Kerry’s own hasty exit. It is no small matter that Kerry’s quick concession was a profound betrayal (much earlier than my prediction, which involved his victory and subsequent turncoating in the name of “better war”). Why oh why, ask the followers: to save face? A warrior’s honorable acceptance of defeat? A planned execution of thesis-antithesis-synthesis to bolster a fellow Bonesman’s continued reign? His political collapse carries more weight than it ought to. As soon as the Botoxed Bosoxed Brahmin announced his rollover (emphasizing Hegelian unity and healing), a chain reaction in media discourse shored up mainstream discussion. CNN, after so many hours of refusing to call Ohio, followed orders to turn the state from green to red. Pundits quickly began talking about what went wrong for the Democratic campaign (not about what went wrong for democracy) and what Bush’s next four years would look like. The erasure of the immediate past was so firmly desired that numerous networks began discussing potential scenarios for 2008!
Why do we feel the need to also follow the leader here? It was just a matter of time before Kerry would’ve shunned his left-leaning supporters, just like Clinton before him (it was only the attack on Bubba by the rightwing machine in his second term that sent the left scurrying to his protection, and cemented his legacy in the current left folktales). It was telling that in the last days of the campaign, Kerry trotted out the pale and weakened Clinton for support–it prefigured Kerry’s own anemic performance while votes were being counted.
After a slightly more valiant fight, Al Gore went into hiding for some time, re-emerging with a hibernatory beard. This remasculinization was short-lived, but how will Kerry follow this tradition? Entering a surf n’ snowboard competition on a Warped Tour? Maybe a guest appearance on Fear Factor is in order, where he can finally lay claim to being a successor, though this time his precursor would be Jack LaLanne.
As for what might happen when the groundswell of activism and hope finally detaches from its dependence on party reformism, the new directions are starting to make themselves clear. Already a network of investigations into voting fraud is forming. Even more, in the face of all the orgiastic celebration of unity, it is obvious that division is percolating from the ground up. No longer relying on a “difference” contained by bipartisanism, the new division can take many forms. From Us/Them populism to global multitude vs. Empire, a new arrangement of desire and action is imminent. Calls for secession (mostly at this point made in an indirect and humorous manner) are beginning to sound like a viable option. Whether this takes the shape of new nation-state blocs (absorbing blue states into Canada) or a more decentralized movement of networked city-states and federalized municipalities, the secessionist calls are a direct challenge to the synthesis of loyal opposition and four more years of consolidation.
Betrayal, in the Old Testament version, meant that the Face of the Divine turned away from its people. Kerry’s version of this should only cause a momentary feeling of disappointment. What his act has done is remind us that “turning away” is an act that does not belong to elites. We, too, now turn our backs on party reformism. We unplug from state-corporate media to create our own forms of expression and info-transmission. We turn our faces away from those Faces that seek to keep us entranced. In the words of Rage Against the Machine, “Fuck it, cut the cord!”
But this turning already assumes a strict division between our faces and theirs, between us and them. Before we detach and begin our exodus we need to extract the lure of these old forms from within. In other words, like Bennett Marco, we need to remove our implants. Do we have the stomach for it? For The Manchurian Candidate, changing the course of history can only be done through great sacrifice. Can we overcome our paralysis? A challenge, then, to begin digging into our collective political body in order to remove our dependence-chips. After all, it is only a superficial wound, while the wellsprings of potentiality run deep. And also to begin forging a collective memory, to reconstruct the past in a way that, while opening with traumatic injury, soon becomes an enthusiastic revival of the creative passions that move history. A renaissance that wards off a return of the worst while encouraging the imaginative acts of will and belonging: has this virtual exodus already begun?
JACK Z. BRATICH is Assistant Professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University. His most recent writings on the cultural politics of secrecy include “Regime of Truth Change” and “Apocryphal Now”, both published in the journal Cultural Studies/Critical Methodologies (2004). He can be reached at email@example.com.