All of the Above

by zunguzungu

I’ve decided I like a combination of Sepoy’s and Keguro’s suggestions: put a period on it and get it out the door. A few of these pieces I’m going to work on actually finishing, but otherwise, it’s time for a make-room-for-the-new-models-everything-must-go sale. I want to write about Yvonne Vera, for example, and Chris Abani. And whatever I think of tomorrow.

So today you get two things. The first thing will be the original draft of choice V, the consensus, because I’ve scrapped it and am re-writing the piece from scratch from a different angle. Here’s what I had:

While trolling the interweb, I came across Mark at K-punk’s “coffee bars and internment camps,” and when he made the interesting suggestion that “the anxieties with which Children of Men deals have nothing to do with nuclear war” it nicely rhymes with a larger question I’ve been turning over in my head for a while: what happens to apocalyptic narratives after the cold war? As he puts it, Children of Men is imbued with “the sense that the damage has been done…a dystopia that is specific to late capitalism…in which there is no withering away of the State, only a stripping back of the State to its core military and police functions. In this world, as in ours, ultra-authoritarianism and Capital are by no means incompatible: internment camps and franchise coffee bars co-exist…The focus shifts from the Next Big Thing to the last big thing – how long ago did it happen and just how big was it?”

I’m all about that. But he never touched on the thing I found most glaring: the fact that the new baby, upon which the entire plot hinges, is born to an African woman (who, for example, sings a lullaby in a language we are not meant to recognize at the every end), thereby making that racial status the implicit (if unspoken) source of the innovation. There’s a reading of that movie that would locate European regeneration in the inclusion of its historically colonized peoples and – especially given that the movie was made by a pair of Mexican filmmakers – it’s not hard to locate what Mark is talking about in a broader political imaginary, one interested not in a single narrative of capitalism marching on, but in the interstices of the lived histroy of its variegated marches.

Mark goes on in that piece to talk about T.S. Eliot and the idea of cultural tradition, but while he says some interesting and apt things about the movie’s address to a society’s cultural memory of itself, Eliot is an egregiously bad framework for talking about how we know who is and who isn’t part of that cultural tradition. By presuming that we all agree on the existence of a “West” as a standpoint we create it as such. And even turning Eliot on his head retains the form of that structure.

It’s funny, the “lately” of that post is very identifiably a present I’m less occupying now. I mean, seriously, the cold war? That was so six months ago. And “interweb” stopped being funny to me about five months ago. More importantly, the argument ran out of steam because I had nothing more to say, and I wan’t sure why TS Eliot was the answer. Now I know though, so I’ve planned out a new course of attack and even watched the movie again to make sure. This time, it’s all about maps and the “off the map-ness” of the rest of the world, an already two thousand word monstrosity I plan to burden the world with soonish.

For today, the second thing on the menus is this, a heavily unfinished post on Shanghai Noon — a fixer-upper, I call it — which is actually a reading I’m just stealing from Scrimshander’s reading of Johnnie To’s Sparrow, since the bastard refuses to commit it to text. Release that shit into circulation, dude! Or it’ll get robbed from you by someone else! Which is the reading, in short: Shanghai Noon wants to situate its American men — the oh so Texan Owen Wilson — in opposition to Chinese men according to the difference between capitalism (in which you have to send money out into the world before it’ll come back as more money) and non-capitalist hoarding (in which you bury your talents in the ground, or consume them). Consumption versus capitalization.

I was to have begun quite pithily:

So why has no one told me about Shanghai Noon before now? Seriously, y’all are slipping.

From there, I swiftly moved to Kipling:

While Kipling famously told us that East is East and West is West, the point of that aphorism was not — as it has generally been read — that the Occident and the Orient are irreconcilable, but that masculinity trumps race; it goes on to proclaim … In this movie, on the other hand, Owen Wilson’s refrain is very different. “This is the West, not the East,” he says, because it’s a different kind of masculinity being channeled, the difference between a masculinity that consumes and a masculinity that capitalizes. In other words, like The Transporter, this is a popcorn movie that is about sex because it’s about capital, and vice-versa. The right way to be masculine, we learn, is the American way: while the evil-bad-evil Chinese treat women like commodities, buying and selling them, protecting and enclosing them, the Americans release them into circulation, liberating them so they can participate in the MCM cycle. “When are you going to learn that you’re not in China anymore?” demands Owen Wilson. When is Chan going to learn that in America, women are not china dolls but are powerful precisely to the extent that they commodify their sexuality and sell it? When indeed.

The trouble is, though, that’s pretty much all I’ve got. I’ve got a bunch of notes and quotes I typed in while watching, and perhaps the rub lies therein: having taken copious notes, I can’t just leave them there, can I? Well, that was before the make-room-for-the-new-models sale! For example:

While Jackie Chan is in the position of protecting the barriers (you are not fit to talk about her), Owen Wilson is all about capital circulation (yet, via the blah blah of east is east and west is west) — whiteness not as difference but as the ability to capitalize on difference. The power of west is the power to lie (to create the fiction of value via MCMC), whereas Chan is stuck with complete literal faithfulness: “he can never learn; he can only follow orders”

Rough. Rough. But you get the idea. And then I noticed that:

Woven through it all, curiously, is a narrative about intellectual property: while Owen Wilson’s early partners steal his lines and his moves, the Chon Win / John Wayne joke reminds us that value is a product not of protectionist isolation but of circulation, that consumption is always a function of capital’s liberation: we get the joke precisely because it’s stealing from prior. “he’s stealing my lines” “that’s my move” at the end, vis the train robbers (bad partners, as opposed to good partners, which are friendship for capital!

And then I started thinking about how self-conscious the movie is about how even it is stealing ande appropriating. After all:

The movie’s opening shot is a pastiche of forbidden Oriental harem clichés: a door opens, letting light into The Forbidden City, at the same time as the palanquin carries Lucy Liu through a field of spear-thrusting phallus-soldiers “bowing” to her (and to whom she shyly peaks through the window). Yet we see this composition from the inside (the camera sees her enter from within the city) and, through the eyes of Jackie Chan, we get to pierce the veil to reveal Liu’s implausibly receptive smile.

In this sense, I went on to speculate that

some of the most interesting “late imperial” texts are the ones that stand aside from the old (supposedly) un-self-consciously racist narratives by critiquing them — especially using humor — but do so in order to recuperate them as objects either of nostalgia. In a general sense, this is often how the Western works: you can desire the old West precisely because it’s gone, because the illegitimate pleasures it allows you to experience no longer exist to be outlawed. You cannot go to jail for killing a dodo bird. And because Indians are people now, and because slavery no longer exists, these pop texts mediate racist desires we can have because we can’t have them. The movie knows these things so that its viewers don’t have to: after all, one can only erase something by first conceding its indelible existence, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t succeed in erasing it from our consciousness.

* “late” as in “late in the imperial period” or as in “the late Mr. Empire”?

That’s why I don’t like the “it’s all a comedy and all postmodern and ironic about being imperialist,” reading: in escaping from her ugly Chinese husband to be, America becomes the vehicle for liberation, but a liberation which ultimately translates not into freedom from penetration but freedom only to be penetrated. Ta-da. Which leaves me, finally, with a whole bunch of scattered notes, which I place before your eyes in no particular order:

In fact the extent to which all this gets compressed into the first four minutes of the movie (the credits aren’t even finished) is a testament to how well-established is the cinematic shorthand to which it refers Jackie Chan gets higher billing than Owen Wilson the first shot of America is a railroad built by Chinese laborers who would be denied citizenship which allows him to get the girl, to capitalize on her instead of commodifying her: roy gets gold, john wayne gets girl (liberates her to circulate: mcm) Chinese guy is the one who enslaves them, btw; and has good English (what’s scary is a chinaman who can harness capital himself) After all, how many jokes in this movie reference American racism? Yet our laughter somehow defuses it (as when the Indians mock chan’s speaking slower to be understood, a reference that interpellates the Indians into our level of knowledge — translated as what the hell he’s taking about — cursing as referencing an american vernacular) the stupidity of white Americans is the perpetual subtext — Owen Wilson’s “sayonara” or the “you people believe in karma, don’t you?” and OW’s ridiculous laughable pretensions; but he’s the us we laugh at “They’re not Indians; they’re Jews!” but that stupidity does reference a knowledge that chan lacks it takes an american to make him able to move between cultures “last train we robbed we were naked” and twirls his pistol bad texas american shoots the Chinese guy cause he’s racist (while the good Texas american only shoots, ahem, ladies that want to be “shot”) classic way of Americanizing an immigrant: busting up Indians! OW learns to use the tools of Chinese consumption to escape from a jam; Chan uses the landscape, but does he instrumentalize it? wants to get the indianness off him so he can be Chinese Slaves have no honor — now you can never go back to China – a good thing! What does happen to Chan’s wife? (echoes of the dead indian bride in The Searchers) except she keeps saving them What really makes chon win mad is being refused by Roy (not being put into circulation) princess needs to demand they not bow Shanghai noon – halfway between setting and rising sun Narrative of turning against culture to save princess- requires cutting the hair (but, as always, put in the hands of a dark skinned other): culture as the opposite of female liberty “he will always be a slave” in the voice of bad guy: what does slavery mean (two things: slave b/c hair is cut and honor lost; slave because believe in culture and obey orders) Totally unnecessary burning of the royal order Roy learns from the Chinese to win (“fight with honor”) “You really are the shanghai kid” The ridiculous goofiness of how, kemosabe Last shot of princess makes her naked, by shooting only shoulders Funny thing about chan is that he performs even for the closing “real” outtakes (mugging for the camera)