Compliant disobedience and remembered forgettings.
By Arvind Iyer, 20th June, 2014
The past: a new and uncertain world. A world of endless possibilities and infinite outcomes. Countless choices define our fate: each choice, each moment – a moment in the ripple of time. Enough ripple, and you change the tide… for the future is never truly set. -Charles Xavier, X-Men:Days of Future Past
Ma-Lo is an amateur short film in Malayalam released in 2012, and was well-received in the film festival circuit in the state of Kerala, widely considered one of the more socially progressive states in India. The film has for its setting the rapidly urbanizing and ambivalently modernizing contemporary Indian mindscape where sexual mores are in flux, forcing a reconsideration of default notions of commitment, fidelity and personal autonomy. The short-film, though admittedly not intended as an activist intervention, lends itself to a wider discussion of the autonomy of individuals and societies in lifestyle choices and policy-making. This discussion considers both the unexploited scope of such autonomy (which postmodernist critiques help bring to light), and also of some objective constraints on such autonomy (which no postmodernist reformulation can wish away). Here, archetypal ‘breakups’ and ‘regime changes’ are treated as illustrations respectively of the individual and collective exercise of human autonomy when faced with an ‘irrevocable past’. The presentation will be in a lounging format that has become popularly associated with the Slovenian cultural critic and translator Slavoj Žižek switching nonchalantly between ‘cultural theory’ and ‘geopolitical commentary’. Much of the article hereonward references the short-film, that can be viewed below.
(Spoiler warning: Plot details below.)
In the denouement of the short-film,what is it that makes Robin reconsider his earlier default patriarchal position? Tellingly, it was not the argument that consensual pre-marital relationships as an exercise of human autonomy are a Good Thing. Instead, what changes Robin’s mind is an ‘It could have been you!’ argument, suggesting that premarital affairs are a Bad Thing which can afflict anyone, and hence must be ‘forgiven’. In other words, the protagonist does not accept sexual autonomy as a Good Thing, but only resignedly as a Bad Thing that cannot be helped and must be lived with. Few things certify an action as a transgression than viewing it as an object of ‘forgiveness’ or ‘tolerance’. Writing in the chapter titled Denial:The Liberal Utopia in the 2010 book Living in the End Times, Slavoj Žižek argues that the influence of ideology is consummate when it begins to regulate even its transgressions. In the short-film and the premises of its resolution, the challenge to a patriarchal norm itself ends up as only a subversion of the norm in deference to more fundamental patriarchal assumptions. Far from amounting to a secession from patriarchy, conceding that the change in praxis is a ‘necessary evil’ but evil regardless, amounts to a concession to patriarchy further reinforcing it. It doesn’t help either that the only time Lincy is shown to be exercising any agency is while making the first revelation about her past, and is shown to be passive, not uttering a word in response as Robin makes the decision ceded to him, without even having to explain his stance.
The ending motif in Ma-Lo resembles the ending of The Dark Knight (2008) too much for it to be coincidental. Wouldn’t exposing the ‘darker side’ of the fallen foe and leaving it visible, count more as evidence of the winner’s fight and victory to have been a righteous one? In many epic narratives, casting a fallen foe as a ‘noble foe’ rather than a common criminal seems to make for a more glorious narrative. However, the ‘turn’ at the end of The Dark Knight isn’t to reveal a ‘noble foe’ but to declare that this was no foe at all. Saying that this wasn’t the ‘real enemy’, and shrugging off the fight with an “It was nothing!” especially after what might have been a fight for survival, is a display of machismo that someone in the flush of triumph may find to hard to resist. Dismissing what might to onlookers have seemed a mortal enemy as ‘not real’ enough to merit fear, makes for better victorious bluster than having gotten the better of a matched foe. The enemy is not just eliminated, but dismissed out of even past existence this way. Such casting of mortal enemies as false alarms belongs to the category of revisionist narratives which Žižek in the same book chapter referenced above, calls ‘retroactive grounding’ where a new legal order established by a successful rebellion serves to redesignate itself and its opponents in the records hereafter considered official. Successful revolutions acquire the means to enable the rewriting history to suggest that it was their ‘governments in exile’ that were always legitimate and it was the ancien regime (which may have been in power for centuries) was treated as being in power only thanks to a kind ‘mistaken identity’ that led usurpers to be treated as rulers. The categories of Establishment and Resistance therefore are subject to considerable ambiguity when a Resistance succeeds in capturing power. Like it is said of an Establishment that lost sway that “It wasn’t an Establishment worth the name to start with”, instances can also be found where it is said of a Resistance that lost its way that “It wasn’t a Resistance worth the name as it went on.” A recent instance of such a ‘delegitimized Resistance’ is available courtesy of the New York Times in its coverage of Egypt’s presidential election:
Although the term “revolution” typically refers to the overturning of one legal order to establish another, Judge Sami argued that Egypt’s revolution had violated the country’s constitutional traditions, and thus “a revolution against the revolution” had become necessary.
Moving on from War to Love, a relationship that was once seen as a realization of ‘true love’ maybe treated as no more than a ‘false start’ or ‘mirage’ after a later relationship seems ‘truer’, changing a person’s terms of viewing their own history to an extent that may diminish the status of some previous life events as landmarks.
The ideological influence of patriarchy was recognized earlier as supply terms of reference such as ‘fidelity’ for evaluating any amorous engagement. However, not all assumptions that lead to a preference of monoamory need necessarily to involve patriarchal premises. Someone rejecting traditional gender roles -and hence rejecting patriarchy at least in theory- may well uphold a preference of undivided attention or affection or commitment as a desirable property of a relationship. Monoamory may hence be a legitimate non-sexist sexual preference compatible with human autonomy.The requirement of ‘undivided-ness’ may be treated as fulfilled by serial mono-amory, which in theory can be viewed as relaxation of ‘strict monoamory’ which requires a non-amorous past and allows only one love affair in a lifetime. Someone who is subject to an ideological preference of ‘strict monoamory’ but fell in love more than once, cannot meet the requirement of ‘only one love affair in a lifetime’ but can nevertheless choose to treat only one affair in a lifetime as true love at any given time. While thus revising one’s personal history to remove love from some affairs, similar devices that make the ‘enemy’ and the ‘Establishment’ disappear can be employed to make disappear ‘lovers’ that never were. The American late-night talk-show host Stephen Colbert, in this interview with family therapist Esther Perel has this quip to offer about the Other that not quite is.
Honey, I wasn’t pushing you away. I was just pulling me towards myself.
The notion that so-called ‘second lives’ are the lives that were always meant to be, and also the ones we lead all along without acknowledging, finds a memorable tongue-in-cheek illustration in the faux-serious(or faux-satirical) subtitle of Colbert’s book America Again : Re-becoming the greatness we never weren’t.
So, it appears we can choose not only whether someone will be our enemy or lover but also whether someone was our enemy or lover. Memories are histories (or all that passes for a historical record) and can also make histories. Misremembered experiences and planted memories can influence future behaviors, like in the dramatic illustrations presented by psychologist Elizabeth Lotfus in this TED talk. Creating a shared memory, that is, a shared history, of a ‘wounded civilization’ or a ‘wronged nation’ can result in the making of a history of reparation-seeking and narratives of a ‘nation in decline’ can lead to a history of anxious displays of influence, of ‘protesting too much’ and protecting too much. While such a postmodernist treatment of history makes a useful contribution of forcing an examination of assumptions, omissions, framings and eventual influences of historiography, it goes without saying that ‘changing what was’ does not mean that our species is in a position to make the sort of interventions in X Men: Days of Future Past.
The limits of revision in altering the course of history can be illustrated using this couplet from William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence, which the polymath Jacob Bronowski in his book A Sense of The Future considers an instance of a ‘poetic metaphor’ where ‘the imagery is factual’.
A dog starv’d at his Master’s gate
Predicts the ruin of the State
A revision of the historical narrative can perhaps cast the ‘ruin of the State’ as merely a ‘state of ruin’ coming to a necessary end, and that any dispensation under which such conditions prevail does not merit the name ‘State’ in the first place. However, even after this revision the dog remains starved and unrevived, just like retiring a term like ‘declinism’ does not change stagnant wages or shrinking middle-classes, or stopping to think of an ex-partner as a ‘lover’ in one’s head causes the ‘unhappening’ of the activities engaged in together before the said partner became an ‘ex’.
The outcomes of India’s recently concluded parliamentary election may be framed by the country’s self-identified liberals as a ‘daily opportunity to dissent’ as was suggested in a Facebook comment that political commentator and blogger Shivam Vij quotes with some exasperation. Columnist Mihir Sharma observes that “The thin victories for politically and socially liberal parties in India are won on the back of the numbers game: of alliances, caste arithmetic and candidate choice.”, and in doing so, points to the starving dog beneath the frame that refuses to go away, irrespective of whether transfers of power are viewed as ‘wins’ or ‘losses’, ‘crises’ or ‘opportunities’. As an aside, we may see again at play in both those commentaries a retroactive delegitimization of the sort we saw above, where the outgoing UPA government in India which for a decade was routinely characterized as ‘Center-Left’ is now spoken of as never having been truly ‘liberal’ in the first place. A week’s political commentary of this sort seems enough to wash the veneer of liberalism off a decade-long dispensation. That by itself seems to suggest that liberal positions and postures held by governments may reflect not the intrinsic structure of the underlying (often unacknowledged) political consensus, but a stretch of it that was unsustainable. Likewise the online audience approval of the permissive line taken by a film like Ma-Lo, may not yet reflect a social consensus, since the visible liberal postures may be ones that are assumed on cue rather than assimilated into routines. To tell apart on camera from in character behaviors, the done up from the done, and situational from constitutional tendencies, requires a kind of social criticism and cultural critique that listens between soundbites and keeps looking between photo-ops.
Looking ‘under the hood’ of a headline (or hashtag) by ‘deconstructing’ a ‘triumph’ or ‘debacle’ may yield clearer assessments in material terms of gains made or costs(and opportunity costs)incurred. The postmodernist project of re-reading and re-writing history might well have some promise in the making and shaping of history by revealing opportunities for the exercise of autonomy that would otherwise be missed. What is not promised is that we can simply rephrase and reframe ourselves out of any heartbreak or deficits or debacles. All cannot be faked in love and war, though perhaps much more(or less) can be faced than we now dare(or care) to imagine.
Arvind Iyer is a doctoral student researcher at the University of Southern California working in the broad areas of Computational Neuroscience and biological visual processing. His interests include science popularization, continuing education, secular philanthropy and freethought blogging. He is originally from Mumbai, India.