JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Bryan Woodward.

CIA as a business.

Connex-Kileen Merger.

Dean Whiting.

Political assassination as office work.

Political assassination as office work 2.

Political assassination as office work 3.

Sydney Hewitt and Bennet Holiday.

Sidney Hewitt addresses Connex and Kileen.

The Assistant DA in a conversation with Bennett.

Wasim Kahn.

 

But this observation needs to be nuanced further, for the kind ofdetermination that Syriana figures is its most valuable achievement. We can gauge this by reflecting on our subjective experience of the film. As I mentioned at the outset, one of the impressions people have after watching Syriana is that it is too complicated, ending up perhaps in mystifying our understanding of the relations between capital and politics. To acknowledge such an insight would set our film viewing in line with Jameson’s understanding of the disorientation typical of the postmodern, expressed most vividly in his tour of the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown L.A.[14] [open endnotes in new window] But it is important to ask, “what is the source of the disorientation and what is its significance?”

Putting aside the limit of a viewer’s capacity to gather important details offered only once and on the move, [15] I think the major source of disorientation on the plot level comes from the character of Dean Whiting. Whiting is the founder of Whiting and Sloan, the Washington law firm working for Connex that is charged with smoothing the merger between Connex and Killen. What is unique about Whiting’s character is that he is the only character moving between the succession story in the Gulf and the Connex-Killen merger in the United States, that is, moving between the economic plot and the political one. During the  first or even second and third viewings, Whiting’s role remains opaque. But once we understand that he is the linchpin that ties the stories together, the film became very clear, perhaps even too clear. Whiting’s character is opaque not only because his moves between the economic and political must unfold behind the scenes, but also because he seems to embody, as one character, both the private and the public interest.

Such close relations between the spheres surface several times throughout the film. Justifying bribing a Kazakhstan politician to obtain rights to drill in the Tangiez, Jimmy Pope, the owner of Killen explains,

“China’s economy isn’t growing as fast as it could because they can’t get the oil they need, and I am damn proud of that fact.”[16]

To have the Chinese appear only under the sign of a national political adversary (we never learn of a specific Chinese oil firm) is one way the film encourages us to notice how the U.S. oil business is taking a patriotic “cover.” Killen speaks as if the economic interests of an U.S. oil company are synonymous with those of the U.S. public at large. The most remarkable articulation of this conflation takes place at the end of the film when Bennet explains how the two spheres converge:

“But this merger [between Connex and Killen] is so balance-positive for the American consumers that ultimately [the Department of] Justice wants it, the federal court wants it. Everybody wants it. Our real client is US, the American People and we’re building our presence in Kazakhstan so we had to give them [Department of Justice] a little something meaningful and they got out of our way.”[17]

Now this symptom to which Syriana seems to give form suggests that we might no longer be under the illusion that Marx identified with the rise of modern society, namely the separation of civil society from the state. In that historical moment, private interest was separated from public interest and consequently the political sphere proper (the state) was conceived of as autonomous and universal. However, to say “our real client is US, the American People and we’re building our presence in Kazakhstan…” is then to suggest that this symbolic separation of spheres has broken down, that private interest has become the general interest.

I will not be able to offer a nuanced account of Marx’s critique of the state, offered in his reading of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, but I would mention here one fundamental argument whose general familiarity will hopefully compensate for my abbreviated discussion of it. Key to Hegel’s conception of the modern state  is the separation he sets up between the domestic sphere, civil society (representing private interest) and the state, representing the general interest, which for Hegel is understood as universal. Universal here means that the state, although made up of people from civil society, is able to transcend private interest and represent the public or general interest. The state, for Hegel, is then a social embodiment of the universal. Marx begins to expose the contradiction inherent in the universality of the state, i.e., the political sphere, by putting his finger on the moment that delegates of private corporations[18] are elected for the national assembly:

“Hegel began by regarding the representatives as representing the corporations, etc., but then introduces the further political determination to the effect that they should not vindicate the particular interest of the corporation, etc. He thereby nullifies his own definition, for he draws a dividing line between their essential determination as representatives and their existence as part of a corporation. Furthermore, he also cuts the corporation off from itself, from its own real content, for the corporation is supposed to elect deputies not from its own point of view but from the point of view of the state, i.e. it votes in its non-existence as corporation. Hegel thus acknowledges in the material determination what he denied formally, namely that civil society abstracts from itself at the moment of its political activity, and that its political existence is nothing but this abstraction… [the deputies] have authority as representative of public affairs, whereas in reality they represent particular interests.”[19]

Marx argues here that Hegel disregards a contradiction between abstract form and content. The material determination of the delegates (their private interest) is obscured by a formal and symbolic structure (the political assembly) that is supposed to insure the leveling of private interest and the execution of the general or public interest. According to Marx, modern society, contrary to feudal society, is characterized with what could be called the fetishization or reification of the political into its own independent sphere.

Now it is easier to draw the distinction between the 1970s conspiracy films and 21st century globalization films such as Syriana. Conspiracy is not simply a structure of appearance and essence (the world of politics appears to be an independent sphere but in actuality it is only a shadow theatre for greater powers). It is also fundamentally grounded on the apparent symbolic separation of two (or more) social spheres. In the older conspiracy film, with the duration of the plot, that separation of spheres is finally revealed to be an illusion. This is why every conspiracy film is, in principle, akin to coming of age stories. Plot development is based on a fundamental moment of recognition of the Real (whether it is probable or not), a demystifying movement from the naivety of appearances to the harsh reality of life. Given a general presupposition of a symbolic separation between the private and the public, what characterizes conspiracy films is their attempt to show how one sphere influences or penetrates another. Indeed, the films’ “dark” or sinister mood has something to do with the anxiety stemming from the source of influence being obscured, in the shadows. But, as a consequence of globalization we notice the erosion of this symbolic separation. i.e., that global corporations are weakening national borders and states’ regulatory policies, as well as the increased financialization of every aspect of daily life which limits and contracts civil and political commitments. Thus, this movement of global integration now fuses the political and the economic such that it is no longer possible to talk about “influence” but rather about the becoming economic of the political.

Think here how Stan (William Hurt, the former CIA agent turned private consultant) explains to Bob how the CIA is an inefficient 30 billion dollar business, how private consulting is much better (“the same job but it pays better”). All of a sudden, as we notice how the CIA agents (Fred, Terry, the Division Chief) insisting that Bob learn how to be a good office person  they begin to change their political colors and emit those signs more typical of corporate executives. What is so remarkable in the way Gaghan shoots the room from which the CIA orders a missile launch to kill Nasir is that its mise en scene  emit not the sinister connotation of a secret assassination, but the dreariness and grayness typical of routine office work. The significance of Dean Whiting’s shifting between narrative and symbolic levels can now also be explained as that narrative expression indicating not so much the influence of “special interests” on politics but the convergence of the two spheres. This is also the source of the viewer’s disorientation—feeling unable to understand who is behind what, who works for whom. I suggest that such viewer confusion comes not from the plot’s mystifying social relations, but precisely from making the  two spheres indistinguishable. In one of the most important scenes of the film, keyed to the Faustian pact, we witness a meeting between a businessman, Dean Whiting, and the would-be King, Prince Meshal (Akbar Kurtha):

Businessman: "Capitalism cannot exist without waste. This is why we should write thank you notes to Mr. Whiting and the USA for producing one quarter of the world’s garbage and one quarter of the demand.

Whiting: You are certainly welcomed; our pleasure, really. (To Meshal): Prince, is there anything we can do for you?

Prince Meshal: Americans are always happy to drill holes in other peoples’ countries. I heard of you, Mr. Whiting: the cat’s paw of the Saudi princes.

Whiting: As far as I can see you could use a bit of the cat’s paw yourself. Second- born son, so beaten down by his family he can’t even tell me what he wants when he’s asked straight out. A grown-up baby, who is afraid of his brother and maybe wants to be king. Maybe? Well, prince, are you a king? Can you tell me what you want?” [20]

See how Whiting is figured as both capital and political power so much so that at this point, at least in first viewing, it is unclear who he is exactly. And how can a Washington lawyer can offer the crown to a Saudi prince? And indeed, although Meshal remains silent, we witness in the following scene the launching of the first assassination attempt against Prince Nasir. Gaghan has a keen, even if a bit awestruck understanding of the significance of Whiting when he talks of the  real-life equivalent of Whiting who served him as an inspiration:

“it’s interesting that these men [like Whiting] can represent inside one law firm… Saudi Arabia, and an oil company, a military contract and be the private lawyer of a senator and it’s one nexus at this point…”[21]

Globalization debates are usually split on whether the phenomenon is recent or the result of long term developments.[22] While critics of the term remind us that capital was always global,[23] I would like to suggest that although capital’s material determinations might be said to remain constant, its global ubiquity and its simultaneity seem to be affecting its symbolic forms (in Marx’s words, the “abstractions”) such that  capital seems to erode the hold of appearances it itself put in place at earlier moments. In other words, globalization seems to accomplish what had been the task of critique, that is, bringing into unity what was reified and separated, only now this unification takes place not in thought but in reality.

To say all this differently and in an abbreviated fashion will be to say that global integration means that we witness the unification of the different levels of social life into a single one, the economic. If this is the case, and I only speculate here, it could go some way in explaining the intricacy of Syriana’s multiple storylines. Both the 1970s conspiracy films and Syriana are charged, as it were, with finding a form for the relation between the political and the economic. In the earlier moment, since the appearance of the separation of the private and public was still real (hence our naivety could be shattered), a conspiracy film’s energies were invested solely in bringing together the reified elements. In Syriana, given the erosion of the apparent separation of the spheres (hence our apathy), the film must invest as much energies in separating them and placing them in the far distant edges of the globe so to be able to tell its story of convergence.

To conclude, I would like briefly to consider one alternative explanation to my reading. It is possible that the transparency of the relation between the political and the economic has something to do with the fact that Syriana is ultimately a film about the decline of U.S. hegemony and China’s ascendancy. It is important to note at this point how the only actors remaining in the dark are the Chinese. Although their presence is as at the heart of the film, they remain quite unknown to us.[24] It is possible then that the structural power shift between the United States and China induces a crisis that renders the relation between the political and the economic transparent.[25] Marx’s theory of crisis, although attending more immediately to the production process proper, could be said to be pertinent here in explaining the unity between seemingly independent spheres:

Crisis is nothing but the forcible assertion of the unity of phases of the production process which have become independent of each other.”[26]

In our case, the crisis exposes the unity of the economic and the political.[27] This will suggest that what I called the convergence of the spheres is not a new stage or an attribute of globalization but simply an effect of a crisis whose termination might bring us back to the former separation of spheres. While this might be the case, it raises questions as to the length of crises and to their enduring effects.

In his 1977 reflections on the Brecht-Lukács debate, Jameson concluded his essay envisioning a new realism, one that would

“resist the power of reification in consumer society and reinvent that category of totality, which, systematically undermined by existential fragmentation on all levels of life and social organization today, can alone project structural relations between classes as well as between class struggles in other countries, in what has increasingly become a world system.”[28]

In films like Syriana, it might be the case that globalization itself prepares the conditions for the reassertion of the category of totality.

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