All The President’s Men as the older type of conspiracy film.

The Parallax View. “Political” matrial as allgory for “economic” significance.

Syriana: violence as the dialectical opposite of economic “growth.”

Nasir's own attempt at reflcting on power relations.

Migrant workers as “raw matrial” for capital.

Migrant workers as a “moral” for the First World spectator.

Fleeting appearance of the “Chinese.”

Connex-Killeen wins back contract in the Gulf.

Meeting with Mussawi.

Meeting with Hizballah.

“American Decline”: Bryan as the object of a “totalizing gaze” not emanating from the United States.

 “Family” as the last resort when the political and the economic are merged.

The “Arab” is still associated with nature and a noble character.

Terror as a consequence of capital’s expanding.

Bob Barnes.


Narrating the global: pedagogy and disorientation
in Syriana

by Kfir Cohen

Whether watching Syriana for the first or even the third time, whether at the time of its release in 2005 or now, viewers often leave the film with a sense that they have been offered an intelligent lesson about global power relations, yet such a lesson seems almost impossible to articulate given the intricate relations between agents, interests, and events.

I have dubbed this immediate sense of insight and confusion as pedagogy and disorientation. In what follows I offer a reading of the film that would try to explain the pedagogical and disorienting elements in Syriana, and indicate how its juxtaposition of events teaches us something about the current moment we term globalization.

An ambitious treatment of globalization, Syriana embraces the most influencial actors and precious objects on the world stage. What propels the film forward, an event taking place before the film begins, is the decision of a Persian Gulf Emir – Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig) – to grant an oil contract to the Chinese rather than to a U.S. corporation, Connex. To compensate for its loss, Connex mergers with another, smaller oil company, Killen, run by Jimmy Pope (Chris Cooper), who happens to just win a big oil contract in Kazakhstan. However, as the firms plan their merger, the Department of Justice (David Clennon) launches an investigation into both firms as it believes the Kazakhstan contract was gained illegally. To manage the damage, Connex seeks the mediation of its Washington law firm, Whiting and Sloan (Christopher Plummer), who sends Sydney Hewitt (Nick Henson) and his “boy” Bennett Holiday (Jeffery Wright) to investigate internally.

Woven into this story’s “economic” plotline is a “political” struggle between Islam and the West, taking on the twin motifs of ideological indoctrination and terrorism waged in the Gulf, the very country of Prince Nasir. Here we see Bob Barnes (George Clooney), a CIA agent. After his mission to assassinate Prince Nasir fails, he is being falsely investigated as a rogue agent. This leads him to investigate independently the reasons and people behind the assignation, and his search eventually, if followed closely, ties the stories together. The other two storylines are that of Brian Woodward (Matt Damon), an American ex-pat energy analyst who befriends Prince Nasir, and Wasim Khan (Mazhar Munir), a Pakistani immigrant worker who is laid off once the Chinese take over the contract in the Gulf. Although important to the film’s unfolding, these two serve the affective side of the story more (other than Barnes, we sympathize with them the most). But those two characters’ storylines are perhaps also the most effective in the film, in the sense that their fates are cast as external effects of the other, larger plotlines: Wasim becomes a “terrorist” and Woodward serves as a witness to Nasir’s actions and translates his intentions to us.

So in its four interweaving stories Syriana offers us a map of connections all over the world. Blogger Philip Dhingra has come up with a visual map of all characters and stories, allowing us to see how “it’s all connected,” how it proves to the unsuspecting newspaper reader that a terrorist attack in the Gulf, appearing in the headline, has everything to do with a merger of U.S. oil companies in the business sector.[1] [open endnotes in new window] And yet Dhingra’s map works to create a leveling effect, reducing all actors and events to the same plane. By doing so, that schematic effaces the real achievement of Syriana.For the film as it plays out shows us how the different and what we take to be discreet levels of the social world themselves change as they come into contact with one another, which, in turn, changes our understanding of them as well. Anticipating a later moment in this argument, what I suggest is that mapping the connections between discreet entities misses the point that the very meaning of an “economic” agent and a “political” agent change as they interact, and this change is what globalization means for us at this point in time.

So using Dhingra’s puzzle “solution” as a foil, I hope to get closer instead to Syriana’s specific pedagogy, which is to reveal, to make visible, not simply global connections but rather the kinds of relations between the “economic” and the “political.”

To address this problematic, I would like to turn to Fredric Jameson’s earlier attempt to think through globalization and film in his 1992 The Geopolitical Aesthetic. Consistent over the years in his insistence on the category of totality and its appearance only in its displaced signs, Jameson continues to offer us an allegorical reading of cinema. Only this time, the films are meant to figure not simply this or that national situation, but rather the more encompassing effects and relations of the world system. In the principle essay “Totality as Conspiracy,” focusing primarily on 1970s First World conspiracy films, Jameson argues that in the moment of postmodernity or globalization,

“the older motif of conspiracy knows a fresh lease on life, as a narrative structure capable of reuniting the minimal basic components: a potentially infinite network, along with a plausible explanation of its invisibility: or, in other words: the collective and the epistemological.”[2]

In Jameson’s analysis, the twin questions of collectivity (the social world as a totality) and epistemology (the manner in which we come to discover or know this reality) is considered dialectically. According to Jameson, the specific historical configuration of the infinite network, entering the text as content and raw material, necessitates a particular kind of form: that of the investigation of conspiracy in its different permutations. It will become evident in a moment what an infinite network might mean, but before we continue we should remember that the investigation or search of an absent totality is not new and has been with bourgeois life ever since its inception. Georg Lukács’ Theory of the Novel remains a reliable source here:

“the novel is the epic of an age in which the extensive totality of life is no longer directly given, in which the immanence of meaning in life has become a problem… [T]he novel seeks, by giving form, to uncover and construct the concealed totality of life… Thus the fundamental form-determining intention of the novel is objectified as the psychology of the novel’s heroes: they are seekers.”[3]

To bring Lukács’ language a bit closer to us and give a sense of what an “infinite network” is, I note here Gaghan’s own account of the screenplay:

“it’s a giant system, and it’s all seems linked and all the players know all the other players and the world is very small. The decision makers in the Middle East and Washington, the guys that affect cross paths… [so] how [do you] capture that…”[4]

Gaghan’s reified notion that the system is the sum total of the players notwithstanding, I take his interest in trying to “capture” the system as a good example of what it might mean to represent an “infinite network.” In other words, if we follow Lukács and Jameson, Syriana seeks to represent, to give form, to these global relations (the network, the system, totality, etc.) and its twin investigations is the narrative form through which we glimpse this totality and its meaning. The script’s twin investigations set up a narrative form through which we glimpse this totality and its meaning.

The film’s burden then is not to invent a symbol for this totality—think of an image of Earth from the moon or Barack Obama and Hu Jintao shaking hands—but rather, much more difficult to accomplish, to offer some kind of insight into its reality, which endows the text with what Jameson sometime terms its “cognitive function,” be it conscious or unconscious. To be sure, according to Jameson the totality cannot be given in itself, hence leaving us to glean it only in its effects, or, in Jameson’s words, in its allegorical signs:[5]

“The narrative cannot but remain allegorical, since the object it attempts to represent – namely, the social totality itself – is not an empirical entity and cannot be made to materialize as such in front of the individual viewer. In effect, the new figure we are here asked to supply continues to suggest something other than itself, in the occurrence a conspiracy that is in reality a (class) war.”[6]

So for Jameson, the significance of 1970s conspiracy films is not that they point a finger at specific political figures, but rather that they offer us a displaced (i.e., unconscious) allegory for the world system itself.

Yet when reflecting on Syriana, it is useful to wonder how much the film suggests “something other than itself” and not the thing itself? For example, Syriana cannot be described simply as a “conspiracy” film but rather, as we might call it today, a globalization film. What one notices at the very outset, even before getting down to doing a close reading of its specific elements, is that Syriana with its explicit geopolitical themes strikes the eye as an explicit, or as Jameson would say, conscious film about the world system.[7] .This change  suggests that our understanding of globalization should be reconsidered in order to account for such a conscious treatment of globalization  in First World entertainment media  where none was expected.

I invoked in passing the two narrative levels that seemed to be at play in Syriana – the economic and the political which could be also understood as  the private  and general (or public) interest. Syriana’s pedagogy is such that it does not just tell us a cautionary tale about U.S. imperialism and the disastrous political effects of securing oil reserves. It surely does this as well, but this aspect of the film provides what seems to me its weakest moments, as it freezes structural interests in conscious ideological statements at key moments (that have the same weight as primal scenes).[8] Rather, it seems to me that  the film articulates quite well relations between the private and the public, the economic and the political. A good way to understand this is to note how Syriana differs from the conspiracy films of the 1970s, which seem to have served Gaghan and Clooney as a model.[9] In films such as Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, Sydney Pollock’s Three Days of the Condor, and Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men and The Parallax View, we have  one line of investigation and usually one detective, whose plotline leads to the uncovering of the conspiracy network. Jameson suggests that these films’ allegorical structure works to align the economic and the political in a lateral manner:

“if you want to say something about economics… you do so with political material (such is indeed the general interpretive of this chapter, that the economic organization of multinational capitalism is in the conspiracy form conveyed by the shifting shapes of power). On the other hand, if you want to say something about politics… it is by way of economic raw material…”[10]

In other words, political power relations are used as an allegory for corporate relations and vice versa; the two levels never co-exist.[11] With Syriana not only do we have two (seemingly) unrelated characters who uncover the two networks at play, the characters’ are quite elegantly divided between an investigation into a private business executed by Bennet Holiday at Connex-Killen and an investigation into a public one, carried out by Bob Barnes at the CIA. The existence of investigations at both social levels at the same time suggests a different allegorical structure. For what becomes evident as the film progresses is the fact that the expansion of capitalism, its need to secure more and more natural resources, confronts a political limit in the figure of a sovereign state and enlightened political leader—Prince Nasir —who would rather sell its country’s oil to the Chinese so as to benefit his people. Of course, as we find out, Nasir is assassinated, his brother is crowned a puppet king, and Connex wins back, at the very last moments of the film, the oil refinery it lost to the Chinese at the beginning.

Here globalization means not only the expansion of capital all over the globe—nothing new— but the fact that the subordination of the political level to the economic one becomes transparent. These transparent relations are not limited to the Third World. For the film develops its conspiracy aspect in the way it sets up the relation between the economic and the political. That is, in order to legitimate the assassination of the prince, the U.S. must code him not as a legitimate economic rival, as the Chinese are, but as a political one. Thus, he is coded a “terrorist” and as such is wiped out by the CIA, an institution of the state.

If in The Parallax View[12] the “cover story” for capitalism is the “eccentric individual,” the lone assassin, in Syriana the system has nowhere to hide. The “political” itself is used as the cover up. In other words, what Syriana achieves with its interlocking stories, is to position the economic and political, the private and the public, in such a way that we witness the subsuming of the latter under the former. This pedagogy is also operative in the other major storyline where we witness, in a very schematic manner, the making of a terrorist and a terrorist attack. The film’s most naïve moment traces direct trail that leads from capital’s treatment of migrant workers to terrorism, that is, how economic conditions spur on the political. To say that Syriana is a film about globalization then suggests not that it imagines the role of U.S. interests in the Arab world, an imaginary dubbed “Anti-American” by Charles Krauthammer, but rather, more importantly, that it exposes the determinant relation between the economic and the political.[13]

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