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Fantasies of Empire

by Benjamin Balthaser
11 Sep 2008 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: General Issue [0] | Article

After the explosion of Zach Synder’s 300 into popular debate, it’s hard to resist a comparison to another recent war-movie, one that equally gains its power from the fantasy projections of its director, Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Indeed, the two films strike opposing doubles of each other, as if in a kind of red-state blue-state litmus test about the viewer’s opinion’s on everything from the invasion of Iraq to their stance on abortion. Labyrinth is a critique of violence and war, 300 celebrates it; Labyrinth centers on a brutal patriarch obsessed with his masculinity; 300 asks you to identify with him; Labyrinth is a celebration of imagination and intellect; 300 is openly contemptuous of both; Labyrinth asks us to confront the Other as ourselves; 300 stages the conflict between Greece and Sparta as an epic race war; Labyrinth evokes weakness as a source of imaginative redemption; 300 finds physical weakness as a source of treason, and so on. Yet as much as these movies find themselves on opposite sides of an imaginative Mason-Dixon line, they have in common one trait that also seems to be responsible for their reception with U.S. audiences: they are both fantasy films. It seems as though American audiences have lost all taste in filmic realism, at least when it comes to representing the “post-9/11″world. Nearly all movies engaged implicitly or explicitly with the current political, imperial, and cultural crisis that enjoy a modicum of success are explicitly unrealistic, celebrating fantasy, exoticism, and the bizarre. Considering that 9/11 was supposed to be the end of post-modernism and a return to the ‘real,’ it is interesting that Jane public doesn’t seem to agree.

Consider: both realistic “9/11″films, Flight 93 and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center were critical and box-office flops (it should also be noted that the one airplane film to really strike a hit was the terror of the absurd, Snakes on a Plane). Clint Eastwood’s Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, both fine films that received critical attention, were largely ignored by movie goers. Other epic films that attempted some form of realism, from Oliver Stone’s Alexander to The Alamo to Troy to Jarhead met with lukewarm to indifferent public response, even if Troy and Jarhead were welcomed by critics. Indeed, the one film to encapsulate American’s desires and fears in the last eight years – both as a longing for a racialized empire of the “West” and in stark horror at what it may unleash – was Peter Jackson’s Lord of Rings trilogy, the fantasy film of fantasy films. Even wildly successful Pirates of the Caribbean can be considered a fantastic look at a particular period of British colonial history, sympathizing with an immortal and spectral pirate over the law-and-order colonial authority. Rather than look at Labyrinth and 300 as simply divergent ideological statements on war and violence, it is more useful to consider what the role of fantasy within constructions of a popular cultural imaginary of empire. This is not to say that the fantasy films depict a more “true” vision of empire, rather that the presentation of realistic people and lives as an ocular spectacle seems to be no longer accepted by American audiences. Empire, as a genre, seems allergic to realism.

Why did realism flop with the invasion of bombing of the Trade Center and the invasion of Iraq? Just look at Stone’s World Trade Center. By the generic standards of realism, the film was successful: ordinary people caught in a drama of social forces larger than they can immediately comprehend, and yet are forced nonetheless to act. Grit, blood, and dust. Tragedy averted by human agency. Rich and poor rubbing shoulders. The tight social space of a democracy. In addition, the film presents the factual details of September 11th with the fastidiousness of Civil War reenacters, to the point of using the actual firefighters and police officers who served in Manhattan that day. Yet even a glance at the blogs and reviews reveals that people couldn’t contain their boredom at the film; even Oliver Stone fans who recognized the meaning of his technique for Wall Street or Platoon were outraged or disappointed when applied to the events of 9/11. Equally, consider Troy, cast with stars such as Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom. As a war movie, an analogue to the invasion of Iraq, and as a restaging of the Greek invasion of Anatolia, it’s actually not a bad movie, down to the chest-heaving realism of battle-tactics – but for all its slings and arrows, it misses the target. And it is precisely because realism is about the visual, tactile world of the immediate, daily life, that it cannot render the new meaning of empire. It’s not that America became an empire after the bombing of the Trade Center and the Pentagon (it always already was one); it’s that Americans could no longer ignore it. That Bush was reelected, one could argue, was the U.S.’s backhanded acknowledgement that we had better start acting like an empire, or we may well lose it. As Amy Kaplan wrote in her seminal The Social Construction of American Realism, [1] realism is the investigation of the visible, the genre of democracy, the representation of an ocular world in which the members can and often do confront one another on the historical stage and, as importantly, on Main Street. Realism relies on presentation, the presentness of social life. Shock and awe is pure spectacle, and the war for most Americans is disembodied as the flickering pixel on their computer screen.

Empire by its very nature creates a problem of representation. As Fredric Jameson notes, it is the relocation of the entire structure of social life to another horizon, it is the emptying of the immediate present of any final, or lasting meaning as the subject cannot by sight or logic understand the workings of the entire system, now overseas: the colony, by definition, is a site of violence that can return only by wild spectacle, not by direct visual evidence.[2] The feeling of disembodiment is perhaps worse in a liberal democracy. Because we are able to speak about empire, it renders the hollowness of the discourse that much more acute, since there is said to be no alternative. Is it a “war” or an “invasion” or a “liberation”? Are the Iraqis free or under a new tyranny? If one were to rely only on public statements of officials or the nightly news, it is impossible to know, since the terms of the debate mystify our perception rather than enhance it. In this sense, the terror attacks inside Baghdad that seem to have no rational aim or target are attempts to communicate, since it is only by the spectacle of excess that the colonial periphery becomes, for a flickering moment, visible. It is no contradiction that many Iraqis think the bombings in vegetable markets and town squares are the acts of American agent provocateurs, and many also take revenge on their neighbors for the acts they don’t believe Iraqis could do. They are acting within the bounds of the nation, and the tactile presence of death; if reality is mediated, it is at least a mediation by someone living down the street, or behind the next barricade.

In this context, fantasy makes an intuitive logic that goes beyond the specific content of the film. Fantasy is, by its nature, a form of excess, a representation of precisely that which has no representation. Fantasy as a genre is also obsessed with the other, the repressed social negativity that suddenly assumes a positive existence: the orc army, the Persian hordes, and in a reversal, the repressed pagan history of pre-Catholic, and pre-modern Spain. If repression of such figures is what keeps the social totality whole in realism (the verisimilitude of the classic realist text), then they are allowed to explode, to runneth over in the fantasy text. In both of these senses, fantasy is the ideal form for representations of empire, as it both gestures to the repressed symbolic meaning of the West, the racialized social identity, but more importantly, it suggests the unspoken, the violent excess reproduced at the fringes of the economic order that cannot be named.

Debates about whether or not Persians are represented “accurately” miss the point (oddly, no one seems to question the sheer whiteness of the Spartans as they do the blackness of Xerxes army). As Adorno notes, it is the role of fantasy in its utopian (or in this case, dystopian) form to “establish that relation between objects which is the irrevocable source of all judgment…”[3] It is precisely because the tenets of realism cannot present the racial subtext of the imperial occupation of Iraq (notice the racial harmony presented in Stone’s World Trade Center), that they arrive in such blunt and brutal force in Jackson’s Rings and Synder’s 300; to ask for lighter Persians would be like asking for fair-haired orcs or disabled elves: the symbolic logic of the film is based on staging just that difference that cannot be named in either political or realistic film discourse. We all know, whether we acknowledge it or not, that the “war on terror” is a euphemism for the re-staging of an older imperial order based on race; it takes Zach Synder, rather than Oliver Stone, to remind us of this. Because it is a fantasy film, he is granted the space to claim what Brad Pitt and Eric Bana cannot in their liberal epic on the invasion of Troy. While of course, Troy was more historically accurate (and a better movie), it missed the extra dimension that makes 300 truer to the current historical moment.

Notice also the flagrant violation of not only ocular realism, the excess of reds and golds in the film, but the way in which 300 violates other protocols of realistic film-making. Xerxes is 9 feet tall; the Spartans carry no food or water; muscle rock in a historical film; and of course, the wrestling costumes. Perhaps my favorite scene is Leonides’ only meal, an apple he eats after the first wave of carnage. It is the only food shown during the entire film; and nothing in the text suggests that anywhere in his leather Speedos does he have room for an additional bulge. The purpose is not suggest that he is hungry, it is convey Leonides’ callousness at the sight of the dead. Scenes in 300 are never constructed to suggest a logical sequence of events, they are moments of ideological staging. In this way, the film is able to make connections that Stone could not even hint at, linking patriarchy to race to ableism to autocracy. To the extent that the bombing of the World Trade Center was an ideological event, scripted before it was even seen, the true opposite of “the real,” writes Žižek, is not fantasy, but rather “Reality,” the re-presentation of daily life as it appears.[4] In this sense, 300 conveys the real experience of the subject in the new age of empire, as a construction of ideological fragments that do not fit and that violate even one’s lived experience. That Synder brings this all together under a chromatic pattern means we can view the unseen trauma of empire as a nightmarish apparition, as the ideological construct it really is. The violence of this film is not to condition us to the violence of daily life, for daily life in the U.S. goes on as it had before; rather it is the representation of the violence that is hidden from us; its excessive violence is in direct relation to the suppression of the violence in Iraq. The nightly news brings us a distant shot of a burning vehicle, an interview with an American general; 300 shows us what we know is behind the grinning face of Brigadier General George Petraeus or, for that matter, the anchorperson bringing us the news.

The problem for most Americans is not that after 9/11 everything changed. The problem is that everything remained the same: we go on as we have before, only with the obscene unacknowledged underside flaring up ever so seldomly in photos of torture, concentration camps, and the occasional American death. This is the brilliance of Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Rather than present the fantasy as a “true” ideological vision, it represents fantasy as the attempt of a subject to contain and understand a world suddenly beyond the viewer’s grasp, the intentional linking of disparate elements to make an object of knowledge. Fantasy for Ofelia is not about escape, rather it is the way in which Ofelia can grasp the fundamental contradiction of the fascist order: family is central to its social and cultural meaning as well as its symbolic political code, and yet it is the innocence of children it destroys – it eats the children it stakes its order on producing. The figure of the monster living below the floor, a blind eater of children and the figure of the toad poisoning the tree in which it lives, are visions of fascism that can bring both the terror – and the attraction (consider the golden goblets and the meal Ofelia is tempted to eat) of fascism together. Yet fantasy is not presented as the opposite of reality, but rather as a means of ideological identification. It is a dialectic of fantasy, a real alternate reality that must be negotiated on its own right, that nonetheless has consequences in the real world – namely, her own death as she carries the captain’s child through the old labyrinth.

Of course, the film is as much about the Spanish Civil War as it is about the rise of a new form of totalitarian order. Fantasy as a process of representation gets at the heart of the new logic of empire. As Ofelia cannot locate her own subjective perception of the world, and as her mother/guardian has succumbed to new order without resistance, the film presents fantasy as the staging of an impossible excess, in which – as Adorno says – final judgments are made precisely because it is through fantasy that objects are lifted from their reification in the social order and brought within new terms of relations. What she cannot understand in her daily life as a loss order, is reconstructed as a new symbolic order through fantasy. As the frame of the debate given by Ofelia’s mother is to submit – either through love or through fear (but submit) – so Ofelia can demystify her environment and see the repressed totality of relations. Her resolution, of course, is morally correct – that she cannot become what the captain is, and chooses death instead, and makes a second link between herself and the figures of the guerillas, who also choose their inevitable death rather than submit.

Del Toro’s dialectic imagination is precisely why the film was unintelligible for many U.S. film critics, who were confused by what they understood as a “child’s movie” or a “fantasy film” and its moral and intellectual complexity. What do fauns have to do with a civil war? It’s also telling that the awards Labyrinth received were for its cinematography, make-up, and art direction – like critics who complain about the excessive violence of 300 and little else, the content cannot be discussed. To do so would be to risk revealing the very order these films’ success owes to its suppression. In one sense, the fact that fantasy films have become the mode through which Americans wish to see the empire represented express Jameson’s caveat that forms of intellectual and artistic labor must do more than present immediacies, but rather engage in ‘cognitive mapping,’ retracing a world that we have lost the ability to comprehend as a totality. That 300 stages an epic race war, and Labyrinth looks to Europe’s pre-Christian, pagan tradition for a redemptive other, does not suggest one is correct; they are divergent ideological approaches to the same problem. That they are also fantasy films suggests that this, until a real discussion of America’s role as an empire takes place, will be the only form in which the absent presence of America’s empire is truly represented.


1. Amy Kaplan, The Social Construction of American Realism, (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1989)  [↑]

2. Frederic Jameson, “Modernism and Imperialism,” Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1990), 50-1 [↑]

3. Theodore Adorno, Minima Moralia: reflections on a damaged life (London, Verso, 1974 (1951), 122-3 [↑]

4. Slavoj Žižek. Welcome to the Desert of the Real (London, Verso, 2002), 20 [↑]

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Benjamin Balthaser’s scholarship, teaching, and creative work investigates the relationships among social movements, racial identity, and cultural production. His current manuscript entitled Modernism and Anti-Imperialism: Global Movements and Radical Culture from the Great Depression to the Cold War explores the connections between cross-border, anti-imperialist movements and the making of modernist culture at mid-century. Balthaser’s critical and creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as American Quarterly, The Oxford History of the Novel in English, Reconstruction, Minnesota Review and elsewhere. He also recently published a collection of poems about Jewish victims of the blacklist entitled Dedication, that appeared from Partisan Press in the fall of 2011.
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