Theory Beyond the Codes
There’s a Titanic in every life, an Abyss in every relationship, an Alien in the very best of us, and hopefully a saving Avatar at the end of the day.
What do Barack Obama and James Cameron have in common? It turns out, maybe quite a lot. Both are technocrats with a burning purpose. Obama is a skilled practitioner of the technocratic regime of politics, that magical process of fusing diverse interests into the commons of public policy. Cameron practices the art of cinematic technology, translating the latest configurations of software technology and prosthetic devices into haunting stories of catastrophe. Taken together, they are the DNA of American liberal thought, expanding politics and cinema to new and unexpected degrees of freedom while at the same time expressing the limits of politics and cinema when reason wars with passion. Born Again Technocrats, each has a very singular ability to work both sides of the cultural spectrum. Like all great politicians before him, Obama possesses a doubled identity: the sensitive author who fulfills C. Wright Mill’s recommendation to make private problems public, namely by translating his autobiography into a larger story of the perfectible dream of American community; and the hard-edged Chicago style politician always willing to cut the deal to keep the process going. A master of procedural logic, an exponent of instrumental activism, and a setter of strategic benchmarks in public policy, Obama’s saving grace has always been his ability to weave his story of struggle and success into an inspiring American narrative. James Cameron is the very same, yet with a difference. A Canadian by birth, his cinematic vision has always been fascinated by the destiny of technology and troubled by its consequences: for air, earth, fire, and water. Like Obama, Cameron can enjoy first an American, and then a global, audience because his vision taps deeply into the contemporary zeitgeist, surfacing deeper anxieties about the future of technology while championing its innovative software codes. After all, there’s a Titanic in every life, an Abyss in every relationship, an Alien in the very best of us, and hopefully a saving Avatar at the end of the day.
Consequently, it is interesting that James Cameron has been invited to an emergency meeting in Washington to consider creative solutions to the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.
On the face of it, Cameron’s presence might have to do with his well-known concern with ecological issues as evidenced by the privileged political themes of Avatar. Or it might derive from his working knowledge of deep-sea diving — an oceanographic vision represented in all of its catastrophic hauntology in the alien undersea oil platform of The Abyss, the sinking ship of Titanic, and the ecological struggles of Avatar. In this case, Cameron’s cinematic vision has always been shadowed by the specter of technological catastrophe. On the other hand, Cameron’s summons to Washington may have less to do with his knowledge of the oceans deep than with his creative vision as a film director. In a world where lines have been dramatically blurred between media and reality, what is happening in the Gulf of Mexico is a classic instance of what Paul Virilio once described as ‘cinematic derealization.’ Those tragic images of dead fish, oil-soaked pelicans, and ruined sea shores circulating in the media minute by minute, day by day, webcam by webcam, indicate that this is a crisis involving not only environmental devastation but also has a visually visceral dimension in terms of its heart-breaking images of a situation out of control. While the Gulf of Mexico bears the brunt of the physical impact of the oil leakage, the damage does not stop with its material effects but now migrates rapidly from nature to politics.
Literally the oil leak has entered deep inside the American mind, and perhaps into world consciousness as well. In a society that seemingly values security above all, the out of control nature of the oil spill accompanied by the apparent futility of governmental action and technical solutions is politically dangerous. We are suddenly in the presence of the terrorism of technology. Everything seems out of control: unemployment stats reflecting real changes in the world economy; a lack of regulations in the financial sector; a war strategy that actually makes the world more insecure by accelerating cultural and religious divisions; and finally an almost mythological, seemingly unstoppable oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Circulating quickly as a pure sign with no necessary relationship to facts in the water, the gathering media narrative sucks everything into its storyline. Is the leak in the Gulf of Mexico a sure and certain sign of creeping stasis in American governmentality (Glen Beck), a latter-day Iran-like hostage crisis (David Brooks), a melancholic indication of the failure of the technocratic imagination to understand the popular dimension of the problem (Frank Rich) or simply a predictable symptom of the excesses of unregulated capitalism? Or something else? Could it be that Obama and Cameron actually have more in common than was previously suspected? While Obama represents a brilliant expression of the technocratic imagination in public policy, Cameron has transformed his deep familiarity with cutting-edge technological devices into fascinating cinematic stories. Both technocrats, both storytellers of out of body experiences, both visual thinkers of the first-degree, Cameron may just be in this case Obama’s Avatar, that much-hoped for desire that just another technological fix, just another special effect, just another hero narrative in a deep water submersible in the Gulf of Mexico can put back together what the catastrophic failure of BP took apart.
Whatever the reason, the success or failure of James Cameron is suddenly invested with a larger question: can technocrats of the cinema (Cameron) or politics (Obama) actually reverse the ineluctable media laws surrounding cinematic derealization, yet alone plug the leak?
Which raises the larger question. Everyone is asking these days: What’s wrong with Obama? For someone who writes evocatively, thinks seriously, why doesn’t he react the way most people believe he should, namely a show of solidarity and empathy with citizens on the Gulf Coast and very real criticism of deep-sea drilling at the behest of multinational oil corporations? But perhaps we should first be asking a question of ourselves. What’s wrong with us, with our expectations, our wishes, our perceptions? Have they all been dashed in the gathering political disconnect of the Obama administration? Could it be that the Obama projection that Americans elected, the Obama that the world perceived, is not the real Obama, but something else: an avatar for an Obama we constructed? Politically this makes sense. During the last presidential election, a majority of the population desperately wanted a hero narrative to resurrect the world from the muck of the Bush administration. Not simply a political leader, but an epic hero who would fundamentally rewrite the political storyline. Like Reagan in reverse, the Obama avatar, fantasized into existence, would finally provide progressive content for the continuing epic of “Morning Again in America.” It is surely of literary, and then political, note that the hero narrative represented in all its brilliance and futility by Barack Obama has itself quickly gotten stuck in the deep sea muck of the Gulf of Mexico. Classical mythology reminds us that hero narratives always end in variations of tragedy, farce, absurdity, and the inexplicable.
Now that the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has ascended from deep waters to pollute the shores and fishery of the Gulf of Mexico, Obama’s perceived indifference to the crisis has been striking. The impassioned author of Dreams from My Father, the stump orator who delivered one of the best political speeches in American history on the subject of race, the debater who reduced his opponents to grumpy silence, the president-elect who inspired a nation, a continent, a world with his words has suddenly gone silent. Could it be that Obama is simply exhausted with the long struggle over very modest gains in health care? Did Obama cut a pragmatic deal with multinational oil in return for their assistance with some legislative or electoral enterprise? Or is the reason more literary in character, namely that Obama is only capable of an emotional response in situations which he himself has defined. Or perhaps all of the above, in which case the complexity that is American politics always involves untidy intersections of economic pressure, political exhaustion, personal psychology, and pragmatic political deals. Whatever the case, the oil keeps leaking, the media senses a larger crisis in the prevailing political narrative, the drilling experts continue to be bewildered, the right wing suddenly has the wind in its sails, the citizens of the Gulf Coast feel abandoned, and the Obama administration is a silent study in political ineptness. On such occasions, the only real hope is a cinematic one, namely that Obama’s Avatar in the person of James Cameron can quickly act to restore the hero narrative in American politics. Failing that, the Obama Avatar that we projected into existence will surely crash under the weight of its own deep ocean contradictions.