So I married a killer robot

I know I’m kind of late to this party, but danged if I’m a gonna quit. I’ve been reading a bit of what the reaction to the new season of Battlestar Galactica has been on some parts of the English blogosphere and I just had to offer my take.

Battlestar Galactica began as a clash of civilizations: the genocidal and merciless Cylons versus the battered yet defiant humans. The people of the Colonial fleet were shown as noble but flawed, peace-loving but driven to violence, grief-stricken but stalwart, courageous, craven, paranoid, and cooly rational — in short, they were shown as human. The humans were the flawed heroes while the Cylons were the perfect Others, the anti-humans: relentless where the humans faltered, inscrutable where human pain was displayed, and all-knowing where the humans groped around blindly in the dark.

That was where Galactica began, but it’s certainly not where it is now. Slowly, we began to see more of what Cylons were really like, and slowly, we began to sympathize with what had been an unknowable enemy. Finally, by the third season the tables had turned and “we” were supposed to feel conflicted as to which side root for: the violently incompetent Cylons, or the suicide-bombing humans?

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the issue of suicide bombing in the show has become so controversial. After all, suicide bombing has been relentlessly portrayed in the news media as a cowardly tactic used by the enemies of civilization, possibly in league with Satan, Darth Vader, and Lord Voldemort. Setting aside the issue that cowards cower, not willingly blow themselves to smithereens, it’s a bit odd that the characters’ use of suicide bombing should be so fraught with moral crisis. I’d always gotten the impression that the problem with suicide bombing was that it was inconsiderate of distinctions between civilians and soldiers, whereas the tactic on Galactica has been used only against military targets. I think that the discomfort with suicide bombing among the show’s viewers comes from two main reasons.

The first reason is that suicide bombing lays bare the fiction that soldiers are human beings. That is, suicide bombing acknowledges that soldiers are not and cannot be human as long as they are soldiers; rather, they are military assets, pawns to be moved back and forth in war, the true game of kings. If a cause is worth killing others for, then it’s also worth killing your own soldiers for (Dean Stockwell’s character voiced a similar sentiment on the show, though he was arguing for the war to become genocidal again). Soldiers are trained to be the tools of their leaders, and the more perfect they can be as machines, the more perfect they become as soldiers. Therefore, when you see Colonial rebels blowing up themselves and their enemies, you aren’t seeing humans killing Cylons. Instead, what you are witnessing is the spectacle of killer robots killing other killer robots.

The second reason I think that suicide bombing in the show is controversial to its viewers is that its viewers are mostly composed of those who conquer, instead of those who are conquered. That is, it is the privilege of the viewers to see suicide bombing as a horrendous crime instead of being forced to consider it as a viable tactic. Which is why I don’t relate at all to the controversy over suicide bombing, since I’m descended from people who might have considered suicide bombing had the option been available.

What I’m referring to is the Philippine-American War of 1898-1902 (the latter year being somewhat arbitrary since armed resistance was still taking place in many “pacified” territories). It’s an obscure war to most Americans, though its impact is still felt today. Many historians see it as the precursor to the Vietnam War and therefore the ancestor of the current war in Iraq, though I see the Indian Wars as the truly prototypical conflicts that lent their shape to later wars of American imperialism.

Briefly, the Philippine-American War grew out of the the Spanish-American War of 1898. The United States, having finished its land-based empire-building in the Indian Wars like the Russians in Siberia, wanted to get into the overseas possessions game. Spain was already in the process of imperial decline and it was the ruler of colonies immediately adjacent to the US (remember, the Monroe Doctrine had already established the Americas as the playground of the United States). With the Philippines in hand, the US hoped to use it as a springboard into China. US troops invaded the Philippines, arriving in the middle of an ongoing insurrection by Filipino rebels. Hoping to use the native insurgents against Spain, the US tacitly encouraged the cause of Philippine independence. By the time the Spanish-American War ended, Spain had ceded the Philippines to the US, which claimed the colony for its own. Feeling betrayed, Filipino rebels went to war against a new colonial master. In the end, they lost and the Philippines became a US Commonwealth.

The conflict soon became a guerilla war for the Filipinos, who could not use conventional tactics against better-equipped and better-trained Americans. The US Army saw guerilla war as dishonourable and uncivilized. A US general, in an exchange with a leader of the revolution, remarked that war

[C]ould only be justified by a combatant where success was possible; as soon as defeat was certain, “civilization demands that the defeated side, in the name of humanity, should surrender and accept the result, although it may be painful to its feelings.” Combatants who strayed from this principle “place themselves in a separate classification” as “incompetent in the management of civil affairs to the extent of their ignorance of the demands of humanity.” In this specific case, the end of conventional war and the dispersal of the Philippine Army meant that continued Filipino resistance was not only “criminal” but was “also daily shoving the natives of the Archipelago headlong towards a deeper attitude of semicivilization in which they will become completely incapable of appreciating and understanding the responsibilities of civil government.” Civilization meant “pacification” and the acceptance of U.S. sovereignty: “The Filipino people can only show their fitness in this matter by laying down their arms…” (Kramer 2006)

However, the Filipino revolutionary countered that the statement

was simply the claim that might made right, that the U.S. war was “just and humanitarian” because its army was powerful, “which trend of reasoning not even the most ignorant Filipino will believe to be true.” If in real life, he noted, “the strong nations so easily make use of force to impose their claims on the weak ones,” it was because “even now civilization and humanitarian sentiments that are so often invoked, are, for some, more apparent than real” . . . [T]he Filipinos had been left no choice. The very laws of war that authorized strong nations’ use of “powerful weapons of combat” against weak ones were those that “persuade[d]” the weak to engage in guerrilla war, “especially when it comes to defending their homes and their freedoms against an invasion.” (Kramer 2006)

Update the language a bit and they might have been talking about suicide bombing. I think that instead of asking how suicide bombing can exist, it is better to ask what kind of dire situation a person can live in that they would think blowing themselves up is a good idea. Make no mistake that suicide bombing is a weapon of the weak, else they would be using cruise missiles and nuclear threats.

Therefore, I cannot really understand why just the very use of suicide bombing in a fictional context can be so fraught with debate. Personally, it seemed perfectly logical that people in the position of the Colonials on New Caprica would turn to suicide bombing in the face of the overwhelming power of their enemies. Why suicide bombing? Why not? To me, something less would have seemed more unrealistic.

Invasion America, or Texas Hearts Part 2

Max Weber’s definition of the state is of “a relation of men dominating men [sic], a relation supported by means of legitimate (i.e. considered to be legitimate) violence” (Rassmussen). Put more simply, a state is an organization with a monopoly on legitimate violence over a certain group of people. Note the use of the word “legitimate.” Both of the passages I discuss in yesterday’s post examine how it is that violence is made acceptable and legitimate in modern democracies. How can modern democracies break their promises of peace and still appear peaceful? Both Comay and Povinelli, then, seek an emic understanding of this democratic violence.

Comay says that “[w]ith the tennis-court oath, the ex nihilo transition of the tiers état from “nothing” to “everything” is announced and performatively accomplished: the oath both marks and makes the people’s transition from political nullity to the “complete nation” that it will retroactively determine itself always already to have been.” She’s referring to one of the major events marking the beginning of the French Revolution, when the Third Estate (the French commoners) vowed to establish a new constitution for France based on their authority as representatives of the majority of the French population. The French revolutionaries were treasonous rebels according to the laws that existed at the time of their revolution. However, according to the revolutionaries themselves, it was the French government that was illegitimate, since it did not represent the will of most of France. Therefore, the revolutionaries were the ones enacting legitimate violence, while it was the royalists that had no authority. Or as Sir John Harrington observed,

Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason?
Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.

Therefore, where the authority of the king made the violence of the royalists legitimate, the authority of the people — or rather, the authority conferred by claiming to represent the people — made the violence of the revolutionaries legitimate. Which is a pretty story, but wasn’t it actually the might of the royalists that conferred authority, and wasn’t it the greater might of the revolutionaries that made them legitimate in place of the royalists? Didn’t their political power grow out of the barrels of their guns?

Yes and no. Ideology isn’t just a justification for violence. It’s also a reason for it. The Third Estate rebelled because they wanted more power (to put it crassly), but they wanted more power because they thought they had the greater legitimacy.

In the passage from Povinelli, she examines how violence and liberal democracies can coexist, how violence is made acceptable in a liberal democracy. While Hegel, by way of Comay, says that democracies by their very nature demand violence, Povinelli describes the twists and turns in logic liberal democracies take to make their violence seem reasonable and rational.

It seems to me, though, that asking why democracies are violent isn’t the right question. Rather, I think it’s more interesting to ask why democracies shouldn’t be violent. All democracies are states and all states are violent, so why should democracies be an exception?

There are many theories of state formation that are empirically supported by archaeological and historical evidence. In truth, states probably formed for different reasons and for combinations of reasons. However, one of these reasons was for the organization of people for the purposes of violence — in other words, for war. In this theory, the ultimate cause of state warfare is the development of agriculture. Hunter-gatherer societies can’t accumulate material surpluses, since the resources they depend on cannot be stored for long periods. The domestication of plants, however, means that grain be stored, and more crucially, that it can be stolen. Therefore comes raiding parties to capture that grain, and therefore states are needed to both organize for and defend against the seizure of resources. Or so goes the simplified evolutionary schema taught in undergrad anthropology courses.

Just as with the birth of the French Republic, so the birth of states was also fraught with violence. State formation is not simply marked by violence; rather, it was for purposes of violence that states were formed. All states are violent and all democracies are states; therefore, all democracies are violent. Individual states may be extinguished by the violent actions of other states, or even by the violent reactions of their own citizens, but despite this, states still act out in violence. So how could one expect a democracy to act in any other way?

Asked the frog of the scorpion, “Why did you sting me in the back as I was carrying us both across the river? Now we will surely drown.” “I couldn’t help it,” replied the scorpion. “It was my nature.”

Deep in the heart of not-Texas

This post is going to be heavier than my normal writing. I can’t help it, I found something last night that tickled my fancy. I just had to write about this issue, especially since it will never appear in my thesis, even though I find it absolutely fascinating. Very well, then, onwards!

While reading s0metim3s’ blog (chock full of theory and Battlestar Galactica — two great tastes that taste great together), I came across her post about an article by Rebecca Comay [NB: link is now defunct] on Hegel’s analysis of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. This quote in particular is interesting:

For Hegel, unlike for Kant, the revolution is a block: the terror cannot be surgically excised as a local anomaly, deformation, or betrayal of its founding principles, the revolution does not splinter into essential and inessential, structural and incidental. Indeed any attempt to define the chronological boundaries of the terror — to confine it to a sixteen-month interval as a temporary deviation from the revolution — arguably only prolongs the persecutory logic that is contained (a paradox exemplified by the Thermidorian counterterrorist reaction and the virulent culture of denunciation it perpetuated: Thermidor is itself the prototype of every war on terrorism).

For Hegel, therefore, the terror proper begins not with the law of 22 Prairial, not with the law of suspects, not with the regicide in January 1793, not with the king’s arrest and trial, not with the September massacres of 1792, not with the riots at the Tuileries on August 10, 1792, not with the suspensive veto of the 1791 Constitution, and not with the storming of the Bastille. Hegel backdates the terror to the very onset of the revolution, if not before—June 17, 1789, the day the États Généraux spontaneously and virtually unanimously recreated itself as the Assemblée Nationale as sole agent and embodiment of the nation’s will.

With the tennis-court oath, the ex nihilo transition of the tiers état from “nothing” to “everything” is announced and performatively accomplished: the oath both marks and makes the people’s transition from political nullity to the “complete nation” that it will retroactively determine itself always already to have been. As structurally complete, the nation must eliminate what falls outside it as an excrescence whose existence is a contradiction: the founding act of revolutionary democracy is thus the purge (Comay 2004:386-387).

Just a quick explanation of the historical context. There you are, king of France, living high on the hog in the late 18th century, when suddenly a bunch of dirty pantsless frogs* start demanding republican representation or something. You, Louis XVI, are captured by the revolutionaries and forced to stop claiming your will is divine. You escape and almost make it to your loyal army but are recaptured and executed. Then, from your zombie afterlife, you watch as the revolutionaries start turning on each other, accusing each other of not being revolutionary enough. A campaign of Terror erupts where people are being guillotined left and right on suspicions of treason. Eventually this ends and the French Revolution keeps marching on. You, however, remain a zombie.

The French Revolution was supposed to bring an age of justice, but it soon turned into a bloodbath. Some historians say that this was just a temporary anomaly, or perhaps growing pains on the road to democracy. However, for Hegel, the violence of the Terror was an essential part of the French Revolution. The seeds for the Terror were planted in the beginning. “As structurally complete, the nation must eliminate what falls outside it as an excrescence whose existence is a contradiction: the founding act of revolutionary democracy is thus the purge.” The French Revolution was perhaps the event that heralded the coming of the age of nationalism in Europe. Having created itself, what was the first thing that the new French nation-state did? Violently eliminate people it saw as outsiders (i.e., those who didn’t believe in the ideals of revolutionary democracy).

This ties into my previous post about nationalism, and it’s certainly nice how things converge. Nationalism and nation-states are violent things, even or especially those nation-states that are democratic. Reading the above reminded me of a similar passage in a paper I’d read by Elizabeth Povinelli:

The temporalizing function of the horizon of successful self-correction seems an essential part of the means by which the practice of social violence is made to appear and to be experienced as the unfurling of the peaceful public use of reason. Characterizations of liberal governmentality as always already stretching to the future horizon of apologetic self-correction figure contemporary real-time contradictions, gaps, and incommensurabilities in liberal democratic discourses and institutions as in the process of closure and commensuration. Any analysis of real-time violence is deflected to the horizon of good intentions, and more immediately, as a welcomed part of the very process of liberal self-correction itself (Povinelli 2001:328).

I know, that’s some dense verbiage there. Luckily, I’ve already written a translation:

Liberal democracies present themselves as always peaceful, always good, and always right. How then is the use of violence reconciled in a liberal democracy, since using violence is never peaceful, and which many would say is never good and never right? Liberal democracies rationalize their use of violence as a necessary part of goodness and rightness: violence is always enacted in the name of peace and for the greater good of all. This of course comes up against the contradictory fact that violence is not always enacted for the greater good in liberal democracies, nor does it address the issue that what is good for the majority is not always good for the minority. Liberal democracies gloss over these contradictions in their logic by saying that yes, there are failures in the system, but everyday in every way liberal democracy is getting better and better, and by pointing out these inconsistencies you have made liberal democracy even stronger. Liberal democracy is a utopian ideology; like all utopias, the perfect liberal democracy exists somewhere else, in an unreachable future. This then deflects criticism that the ideals of liberal democracy and the practice of it do not mesh together, since eventually (but don’t ask for a timetable), liberal democracy will be peaceful in fact as well as in name. But until then, try to understand that we’re beating these protesters and arresting these coloureds and exploiting these illegal immigrants because we love peace so much. Thus is violence made rational and good in a liberal democracy.

Neither of the two papers are really about nationalism and nation-states, they’re more about violence and democracies. But I think they do a very good job of explaining how it is that a peace-loving democracy can be violent. Modern democracies are also nation-states, and nation-states are inherently violent entities. Well, to be fair, states are inherently violent in themselves. Weber, after all, defined a state as being an organization with a monopoly on legitimate violence. The difference between a state and a nation-state, though, is that while a state like the Roman Empire was content with having different people such as Greeks and Spaniards for its citizens, the nation-state of Italy can’t stand to have non-Italians such as Ethiopians and Kenyans in Italy walking around being non-Italian (though there is also a racial dimension to this discrimation). So I suppose I am disagreeing about the ultimate source of violence within modern democracies, at least those that don’t espouse multicultural ideology, which is still not a fully-established norm anyway.

You know what, this is interesting. I need to come back to this. I hate to be a tease, but I don’t have any more time to hang around the library today, so tune in tomorrow for Part 2.

And by the way, I’ve almost finished doing my interviews, so either this week or next I’ll start posting some of my preliminary findings on Filipino bloggers.

* Here I’m referring to the sans-culottes. I know, they weren’t actually pantsless frogs, I was being facetious. It was actually knee breeches that they didn’t have.

References:

Comay, Rebecca (2004). “Dead Right: Hegel and the Terror.” South Atlantic Quarterly, 103(2,3):375-395.

Povinelli, Elizabeth (2001). “Radical Worlds: The Anthropology of Incommensurability and Inconceivability.” Annual Review of Anthropology 30:319-334.

Nationalism and its discontents

I’ve just come across this article about the University of the Philippines Open University’s course, Filipiniana Online, which from what I gather is a sort of quick immersion in Philippine “culture”. There are several things I find interesting about this course.

First, the course seems to define culture as art: the student studies, among other things, “Filipino paintings and other forms of visual arts . . . Philippine rituals, dances, musical forms, plays and films.” Well and good, but the implicit message is that culture is superficial. How much of daily life do you spend dancing or watching films? Not a lot, so this culture as art idea seems to be saying that Philippine culture is just something Filipinos indulge in every now and then, but it otherwise doesn’t impact their everyday lives.

The course also seems to define culture as being prestigious. Notice that tv shows aren’t mentioned, and I suspect the films being reviewed are serious stuff like Lino Brocka’s work and not trashy like, say, Darna. Wouldn’t the stuff with popular appeal impact on more people, and therefore reflect the concerns of more Filipinos than high-minded artistic fare? If the purpose of the course is to understand the Philippines, you would think understanding the vast majority of Filipinos would be a very high goal.

The course also focuses on the spectacular instead of the everyday. Dances and plays are certainly nice to watch and participate in, but as I said, they don’t really influence that many Filipinos and aren’t a concern for most. Filipinos in the Philippines, ask yourselves this, when was the last time you danced the tinikling? Probably when you were still kids in school, right? Now, when was the last time you sent a text message? The Philippines has been claimed by some to be the most texting-crazy country in the world. I would argue that studying the use of texting in the Philippines would give someone a greater understanding of Filipinos than studying any number of dances would. The same for studying the demographic composition of the Philippines or the way social class works in the country (for example, how most middle class Filipinos have maids, and how that is not the same among the middle class in, say, Australia). However, if you define culture as being spectacular, then this kind of stuff would not apply, since it is just the boring everyday stuff which also happens to be the stuff that most Filipinos deal with everyday.

Having said all that, I wouldn’t mind enrolling in the course if I had the time. I certainly have the money, which is no small thing when you consider that quite a lot of Filipinos in the Philippines don’t. I’m curious to see exactly what this course would say about the Philippines. Would the course mention that Emilio Aguinaldo, the official first president of the Philippines, had his rival Andres Bonifacio shot because of Bonifacio’s popular appeal despite the fact that they were both supposed to be on the same side? Would it also mention that Aguinaldo collaborated with the Japanese during the occupation of the Philippines in the Second World War?

I’m not trying to be overly critical of the Philippines, I’m just pointing out that all countries have things they shouldn’t be proud of, and I wonder whether the course would take this harsh realist approach instead of the nationalist rhapsodizing that I expect.

Still, this kind of whitewashing should be placed in its context. The Philippines is a country of multiple languages, ethnicities, and religions. It doesn’t fit too well into the ideal of “one country, one people” that nation-states aspire to. It’s a lot harder to sustain the fiction of a Philippine nation when there are so many obvious divisions within the population, and the constant efforts by the Philippine nation-state and its intellectuals to promote the Philippines should be understandable from this perspective. To put it simply, Filipinos have to be constantly reminded that the Philippines exists because they get so many reminders everyday that it doesn’t.

The focus of the course on traditional dances and such reminds me of how the Germans invented Germany. What we know as Germany today was divided into several different principalities, kingdoms, bishoprics, and city-states until the middle of the 19th century. Sure, the people all spoke the same language (in the same way that Scottish people and Texans speak the same language, i.e., with varying degrees of intelligibility), but they had different rulers, somewhat different customs, and even different religions. “Germany” was a mishmash of different peoples. However, once German unification started, the commonalities between these different peoples also started to be highlighted. One of these projects of cultural unification involved the collection of folk tales. “See, Germans, this is something we all have in common — Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin, the Pied Piper of Hamlin.” That was part of what the project was saying. The collection of folk tales was one of the ways in which the German Volk was constructed, the German people. And we see the same process taking place in the Philippines with the Filipiniana Online course today.

Anyway, I have more critical analyses of this Filipiniana Online course, but they’ll have to wait for another day.