Monthly Archives: November 2017

The Punisher’s Liberal-Imperialist Narrative

It would be easy to dismiss the recent Punisher series, the next Netflix MCU series, as simplistic action porn based on a hero whose super powers are guns and killing people. After all, aside from Punisher-esque protagonists being the staple of US action cinema, we’ve already had multiple versions of this second tier comic character: the campy Dolf Lundgren version, the “realist” Thomas Jane version (with a short film spin-off), the splatter-punk Ray Steven version. And yet this version of the Punisher, despite its predictable character development and clumsy attempts at pathos, is worth taking seriously for one reason only: it is the most coherent expression of liberal-imperialist ideology.

Like establishment Democrats who still think the answer to Donald Trump is Hillary Clinton, and that the entire world would not only be better but sanctified if Clinton had won the election, the writers of the Punisher want you to know that they are critical of the current violent order. Not critical enough to think through the foundations of the American system, but critical in a cosmetic sense that earnestly believes it is not cosmetic. The ethics of the Punisher is the ethics of Hamilton, of appeals to Obama’s legacy, of claims that the Founding Fathers would be displeased with “Trumpism”, that the American Dream is worth saving if only we could rid ourselves of evil elements that stand in the way of its final consummation. When it is cynical, and it does play itself mainly as cynical, this cynicism lies only in the fact that the glory of the American Dream might always be thwarted by the corruption of human nature.

Corruption: it always has to do with corruption. For the dyed-in-the-wool liberal the problem with the state of affairs isn’t the foundation upon which this state of affairs rests (i.e. capitalism and imperialism) but instead particular elements – corrupt individuals and connected conspiracies – that betray justice. Otherwise the foundations are legitimate; the solution is to excise the corrupt elements and save a system that is otherwise just.

The new Punisher series tells the same story, but with modern liberal characteristics. Frank Castle is a veteran of the US war upon Afghanistan who was ill-treated, betrayed by corrupt elements in the war apparatus, and turned into a “hit man” instead of a “soldier”. The very idea that these categories are distinct, and that there is a righteous soldier who is not a hit man, speaks to a belief in the justice of imperialist war, that US involvement in Afghanistan is otherwise alright if corrupt elements hadn’t involved themselves. Moreover Castle’s trauma, a complex of being misused by his superiors and then violently betrayed with the murder of his family, becomes the central theme. And this is a very modern liberal theme: the abuse of contemporary veterans, the PTSD of “our boys”, the fact that any problems of war (and a war that is presumed to be just in the first place) are in how they negatively affect imperialist soldiers.

With a liberal attention to detail, the series focuses upon the trauma of the neglected veteran, a Democrat talking point. One important character runs a support group for veterans, soldiers attempting to find themselves at home and recognize that their trauma has to do with sacrifice upon the nation’s altar. This support group provides the impetus for significant plot points: not only does it eventually serve as the redemption of Frank Castle, but it launches the trajectory of a “wrong” way to deal with war trauma, the character of Lewis who, in rejecting the group’s help, becomes the series’ Oklahoma Bomber.

Anything that is bad about imperialist war, according to this narrative, is only bad because of the trauma of the imperialist soldiers. Why do they experience trauma? Because they were either misused or were treated poorly upon their return to US soil. Being an imperialist soldier is never questioned; those who engage in this vocation are treated honourably by the series, as if they have chosen the highest good – Castle refuses to kill other soldiers, even though he has become a vigilante, because these are the “good guys”. Even more reprehensible, but consistent with the series’ ideology, is the fact that the trauma of the victims of imperialism barely registers. In the flashbacks to Afghanistan those resisting the occupation are gibberish enemy savages, worthy of annihilation, with the exception of one individual who was “wrongly killed”. This individual is in fact a collaborator, a cop for the puppet dictatorship, who was murdered by his own corrupt allies.

But back to Lewis. Here is a character whose trajectory should be understood as the trajectory of a white nationalist, since he espouses precisely what today’s fascists espouse, but we are meant to feel for him. Even though Castle and Karen Page call him a terrorist because his assaults affect civilians, we are still forced to humanize him when his counterparts in Afghanistan are not allowed the same humanization. It’s some Dylan Roof shit, with the veneer of military institutional sanctification. Castle shares a moment of sympathy with him, even, when he suicides in a meat locker. Why can’t we all get along?

Other characters spring forth to form this liberal imperialist imaginary. Dinah Madani, an Iranian-American operative in the War on Terror in Afghanistan functions to consummate the liberal US dream that people from sites of oppression can and should be prosecuting US hegemony. She celebrates this hegemony, she pontificates about how “good” the US was to her immigrant parents, she has transcended racism. Her only problem is the barriers of corruption that prevent her from saving the American Dream. Ah, the liberal dream of a rainbow coalition of oppression!

The resolution of the series is the end of corruption, the unity of Madani and Castle, and an epilogue where Castle finds himself in that space to work out his trauma, which is only ever the trauma of the oppressor and never the trauma of the oppressed. Castle’s brown shirt vigilantism is thus channeled into liberal avenues of imperialist PTSD management and that is the moral of the story.

But this moral of the story is overdetermined by Castle’s freikorps style activities, which should otherwise be understood as fascist. The series works overtime to question this vigilantism while still giving it free reign. The Punisher is thus a social fascist narrative, which is precisely the ideology of liberal capitalism.

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The Review, The Critique

The over-democratization of reviews and critiques in venues such as Amazon and Goodreads, far from opening up a space of popular discourse, has resulted in the crudest forms of populism. While it is indeed the case that we ought to build a culture of popular criticism, it is also the case that when such popular criticism is overdetermined by capitalist ideology the result is the valorization of the lowest common denominator. The average Amazon and Goodreads reviewer, paradigmatic of reviewers of art on other popular sites, has proven to be compromised by a bourgeois subjectivity that is disciplined by the capitalist culture industry.

What we find in these so-called “democratic” review spaces is the domination of impression over substance, the conflation of personal opinion with objective standardization, and the a priori assumption that one’s feelings about a work of art are tantamount to an objective critique. The “star” rating mechanics are not helpful in this regard since the encourage readers to rate a work of art based on their subjective apprehension of this work rather than a consideration that is anterior to whether or not they personally “enjoyed” the work in question. A reader-reviewer is thus encouraged to rate, in a positivist/mechanical manner, a work according to whether they personally “enjoyed” it, and thus to collapse personal opinion with objective critique, rather than to think through the work outside of the realm of opinion.

(This is to say nothing of “brigading” review practices where individuals on platforms such as Amazon or Goodreads decide to “punish” an author they dislike for dubious political reasons by one-starring them en masse.)

There is indeed something odd about Yankee-influenced discourses of democratic critique. There is a weird populism that treats personal opinion as existing on the same level of objective assessment. USAmericans, and those devoted to the USAmerican regime, are weirdly invested in the conflation of opinion with fact. An entire species of thought regimes are based on the assumption that every opinion is equal, and those expressing these opinions should have the right to treat them as truth even if they are in opposition to science. USAmericans pat themselves on the back when they defend the right of anti-science weirdos to treat their opinions about six day creationism as fact. This understanding is translated into the so-called”democratization” of literary criticism: USAmerican subjects, and those with the same magical thinking, are rating works of art and literature based on their own ‘sacrosanct’ opinions which they have been taught to see as objective. “Every opinion is valid,” is the liberal claim when this is, in fact, not the case.

This opinion-review practice can thus result in reviews that should not even qualify as proper reviews of a work of art in that they undermine the reviewer’s very ability to speak coherently about the work in question. One cannot provide a thorough accounting of a work of art, an aesthetic interpretation that tries to understand what it means as a work of art and its importance in the history of artistic production, if it’s being treated like a choice between a banana and bowl of cereal.

For example, I’ve encountered reviews that admit to not finishing a book because they found it “difficult” and then one- or two-star the book that they did not read because they did not finish it. You would think that finishing a book should be mandatory to writing a review that possesses the right to rate. You would also think that a reader’s inability to understand a piece of literature says more about the reader than the book: it is not the book’s fault, unless it was thoroughly obscurantist for no good reason, that an individual reader lacks the attention or care to try to understand it; that one- or two-star review should apply to the reviewer’s reading comprehension and not the book. Ulysses is difficult. Hopscotch is difficult. 2666 is difficult. It is entirely laughable to imagine that the worth of these great works of literature should be decided based on their difficulty. Conversely, does the fact that the same someone can mindlessly consume a Harry Potter novel and give it five stars mean that pulp fiction possesses a higher literary quality than works that are one-starred because of their difficulty? The very idea is ludicrous and, again, speaks to the collapse of the categories of personal taste/opinion and critical assessment.

The culture industry’s reconfiguration of reading comprehension and literacy around commodification and patterns of consumption has encouraged and valorized the insipid opinion-review. The idea of thinking through a work of literature, film, art according to its own terms – its aesthetic qualities, its relation to the social-historical context of creative production, the best interpretation of its meaning as a work of art – is excluded from a practice of thinking that has been cultivated by bourgeois ideology. While there was a time when bourgeois art critics could pat themselves on the back for their understanding of culture, those days are long gone: the logic of the bourgeois order, which only cares about art and literature insofar as it can be commodified, now militates against the very culture it once pretended to represent. Bourgeois cultural education is no longer an education that teaches an appreciation of the arts (this is the residue of a time when it opposed the dregs of feudal society, when it was generating creative thinkers), but an education of commodification and mechanization in every sphere of life: Transformers movies are its apotheosis.

But to review something rigorously, to engage with a piece of art in a manner that gives your review (and even your mechanical rating) justification, requires effort beyond the one-dimensionality of personal taste. That is, critically reviewing and engaging with a piece of literature or art is not represented by the insipid populism that is centered by the Amazons and Goodreads of the world. The idea, here, is very simple: it is possible to review a work of literature and art you don’t personally enjoy and still understand and celebrate its artistic/literary merits. And this is precisely what a “good” (meaning honest and critical) review should do: suspend personal taste, recognize that consumptive patterns are the result of socialization, and attempt to think through a piece of literature, art, or film according to artistic/literary standards that, though historically inherited, lurk outside of my personal tastes.

To review critically is to suspend your personal taste and opinion, to transcend the opinion-review practice. For example I do not enjoy reading Proust but I understand that the artistic importance of Proust transcends my personal taste. If I was ever to write a review of his work I would treat it with the gravitas it deserves: I would read it fully, I would engage with it as a work of art outside of my own enjoyment of the work, and would not dare to fire off an asinine review based on my inability to actually read the text in question. I never finished Swann’s Way (though I made it halfway through), let alone the other books of Remembrance of Things Past, because I found it entirely boring – and this is why I refuse to review Proust according to my personal experience of trying and failing to read his literary output. And if I had read him thoroughly, and had still failed to personally enjoy his work, I would still be wrong to review his work solely based on my personal experience. It is possible to understand the importance of a work of art without liking it… Unfortunately the populism of reader reviews in sites such as Amazon and Goodreads encourages the opposite.

If we are ever to transcend the mechanical appreciation of literature and art that is cultivated by these populist review sites we need to also recognize that thinking through a work of art/literature requires a suspension of personal taste as well as the requirement that the reviewer fully engage with this work. I don’t have to personally “enjoy” a particular work to recognize it as important; my opinion and taste should be suspended if I aim to write a review that matters, that can speak beyond the infantile category of subjectivism. Otherwise it is the celebration of Transformers and Harry Potter all the way down.