The Operatics of History


/1/ – Glory’s fictive gossamer


Frank Miller’s 300 has dredged up a seemingly odd amount of controversy given the fact that it is a film based on a graphic novel which was in turn inspired by a film which was based on a clearly mythologized telling of history. Do the theatrics of a film such as 300 salt the wounds formed by the divisions of history and fiction? Why is this the case?

In his five part essay “Some Politically Incorrect Reflections on Violence in France & Related Matters” Slavoj Žižek discussing ressentiment and violence brings up a bit of propaganda from North Korea used during the Korean war:

“Hero Kang Ho-yung was seriously wounded in both arms and both legs in the Kamak Hill Battle, so he rolled into the midst of the enemy with a hand grenade in his mouth and wiped them out, shouting: ‘My arms and legs were broken. But on the contrary my retaliatory spirit against you scoundrels became a thousand times stronger. I will show the unbending fighting will of a member of the Workers’ Party of Korea and unflinching will firmly pledged to the Party and the Leader!'”

Žižek discusses the passage in the following way:

“It is easy to laugh at the ridiculously non-realistic character of this description: how could the poor Kang talk if he was holding the grenade with his mouth? And how is it that, in the midst of a fierce battle, there was time for such a long declamatory proclamation? However, what if the mistake is to read this passage as a realistic description, thus imputing to Koreans ridiculous beliefs? In other words, what if the mistake is the same one as that of the anthropologists who impute to “primitive” aborigines celebrating the eagle as their ancestor the belief that they are really descended from the eagle? Why not read this passage – which effectively sounds operatic in its pathos – in the way similar to listening to Act III of Wagner’s Tristan, where the mortally wounded Tristan is singing his (extremely demanding) dying chant for almost an hour – who of us is ready to impute to Wagner the belief that this is possible?”

As Zack Snyder, the director of the film pointed out how while the events of the film are fairly accurate (in terms of what happened where an to whom) everything else is dramatized and for obvious reasons. While there shouldn’t really be any question with that which is lost to history one could still have issues with the particularities that are accented when they are re-imagined. The God king Xerxes, for instance, is portrayed as incredibly feminine and there is a strong homosexual tension fostered between him and Leonidas. Though it seems odd that the sexual flamboyance of the Persians would be seen, as in has in several newspapers, as an attack on Iran.

A queered Xerxes?

But why is it that such obviously mythical history should be taken as so offensive? On one level it seems ridiculous to complain that the film makes the Persians ‘look bad’ because, well, they were trying to take over the entire world quite frankly and the film does not make them look inhuman, they are simply a terrifying military force.

The film, as well as the source material (Miller’s graphic novel as well as Herdotus’ history) should then be seen as an operatic staging not just of the events portrayed (the Battle of Thermopylae) but of the emergence of democracy itself.

The film’s portrayal of Spartan society may seem to retroactively assert democratic values prior to their ‘actual’ emergence in the later unified state of Greece. While there is some leeway in allowing for violation of democracy for the sake of democracy (the concept of sovereignty, the exception) it is usually in terms of a highly mythologized figure such as Cincinnatus.

/2/ – Governmental forms and history

Your mine my pretty world!

This retro fashioning has to do with the uneasiness regarding the relationship between the totalitarian and the democratic. One interesting anecdote here, in regards to this disavowed tension would be Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. In a well known scene Chaplin playing a tweaked copy of Hitler dances with a large inflatable globe demonstrating the playful desire for world domination while Wagner’s Lohengrin plays in the background. The Jewish barber character in the film (also played by Chaplin) is later on mistaken for the dictator and is taken away to give his final rally speech. The speech begins:

“I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an Emperor – that’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone, if possible — Jew, gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another; human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there’s room for everyone and the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone.”

What’s very interesting about this speech that only becomes more optimistic, is that Wagner’s Lohengrin overture plays in the background implicitly comparing the spread of democracy and the tyranny of Nazism. In The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema Žižek uses these two scenes to point out the threat of music in general – that music fills the terrible void of uncertainty and this always carries a dangerous risk alongside it.

Beyond the sort of Nazi form of tyranny is the communist one which, through its communality is far closer to the democratic form then most would like to admit. (Here again is Zizek’s anecdote about the Nazi leader versus the Stalinist one: The Nazi simply accepts the applause the communist leader applauds with the crowd because they are applauding the party/revolution itself.)

The point to be taken from this closeness is to reject the very concept that democracy is a form altogether. This is Jacques Ranciere’s main argument in Hatred of Democracy – that democracy is always a form of action not a bureaucratic amalgamation.

Oh you lovely fascist!

To bring this back to 300 another level another level of criticism brought against the film is that it is an example of what Susan Sontag called a Fascist art. In her article “Fascinating Fascism” Sontag discusses the work of the infamous director Leni Riefenstahl. In particular Sontag discusses Riefenstahl’s book The Last of the Nuba and how the photographs dismiss the elders and celebrate the young athletic bodies and that it purportedly places the women of the society as simply birth vessels. This point could be criticized in the film in that the Queen is defined as having power because she gives birth to Spartan men and she is simply a defender of her king. (Now according to the records Spartan women had equal property rights, the ability to divorce and so on.)

But I digress, to return to the question of history – the kind of structural exception to democracy does not undue its integrity but functions in a way similar to the mythic in history – the exception allows for a kind of staging from which the very effect of the form is waged. The violent and the traumatic all arise in a fetid knot which simply go beyond a kind of justification of their own means in that the trauma and violence are simply inseparable from the glorious birth. Through the fingers of historicism slips various strands of filth…

/3/ – Oh what lovely oppression!

One of Walker’s murals

I couldn’t help but be struck by Kara Walker’s exhibit My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love. Walker’s work utilizes racist and cartoonish portrayals of slavery and post-slavery blacks often engaged in a multitude of vulgar and violent acts. Several theorists have written on Walker’s work and she’s had many critics, some going as far as accusing her of having an ‘internal plantation’ and her work has been censored and deplored by fellow artists.

Walker’s works are cut from black paper and fixed to the walls of the museum space – one piece often fills an entire room. In Imagine There’s No Woman Joan Copjec argues that Walker’s work, in a wonderful combination of its form and content, points out that there is something that cannot be cleaned or otherwise explained fully about the legacy of slavery. The real of slavery is a kind of stain that affixes itself to us as literally as Walker glues her paper figures to the plaster. The history of the silhouette is itself connected to the racist practices of the pseudo science of physiognomy. Walker’s images seem to invoke a kind of wounded pleasure and she has often commented on how racism is sustaining black identity in several ways.

One example of this is her work Cut in which a silhouette of a woman is jumping in the air, clicking her heels, and slitting her wrists with a straight razor.

There’s a closeness between psychoanalysis and the sort of genealogical histories of Foucault and Nietzsche here. This is particularly evident in Wendy Brown’s Politics Out of History as well as States of Injury. Brown is well known for her attack upon identity politics and in particular the idea of ‘wounded attachments’ which she draws from Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals. Brown argues that modern subjects loathe freedom (States of Injury, p. 63) and that identity politics which are connected to this loathing, are ultimately a consequence of ressentiment. To explain the notion of intense ressentiment Žižek tells the following joke: ‘A benevolent witch approaches and poor farmer and tells him ‘I will to do you anything you wish but I will do it to your neighbor twice’ with a smile the farmer responds ‘take one of my eyes.’

Walker has suggested that the US has a ‘love affair’ with racism and that there is a serious fear of what would happen if we were to overcome it. While I do not wish to invoke the Lacanian idea of the symptom here it is easy to see how the basic logic is functioning – simply that the wound is the primal center, that there is the wound because the choice is either that or nothing and the very nature of birth takes away our choice of nothingness.

/4/ – To throw the curtain back…

Ultimately there is a kind of choice of nothingness through the dedication to nihilism. Jean Baudrillard’s comment in Simulacra and Simulation that we have become fascinated by vanishings is of particular use in relation to history.
If we simply adopt the look of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, as that who is fascinated by the rotting mass of history itself then there is at once an ignorance of the specters of the past that are useful as well as unwillingness to look in the present moment for a kind of radical appearing. The impossibility of newness beaten so throughly into the heads of art students is a good example of this – it nullifies our capabilities as well as a truly critical eye towards the past.

One should take very seriously the following comment by Alain Badiou in “Manifesto for Affirmationism”:

“We should oppose all those who only want the end, those cohorts of the burned-out and parasitical last men. The end of art, of metaphysics, of representation, of imitation, of transcendence, of the oeuvre, of spirit: enough! Let us declare at once the End of all the ends and the possible beginning of all that is, of all that was and will be.”

The irreducible Mr Beckett

Now one must not confuse such a call with the infinite possibility of the market place – that anything is possible via the American dream. One must break this infinite possibility that is only infinite within the boundaries of capital. One might do well to quote from Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable: “These things I say, and shall say, if I can, are no longer, or are not yet, or never were, or never will be, or if they were, if they are, if they will be, were not here, are not here, will not be here, but elsewhere.”

So, to return to the Opera (for the first time?) there is, in 300 a kind of double mystification to borrow a phrase deemed fit for the Opera is Mladen Dolar and Slavoj Zizek’s book Opera’s Second Death. Dolar states that the opera was about an imagined story about a time in which an imagined community was possible – thinking of a time when they thought of utopia. Dolar writes: “Opera thus retroactively recreates the mythical past that nobody believes in but yet is dearly needed and piously re-created” (p. 4).

Again, to repeat Badiou, we need a fiction, a creation that is a creation insofar as it rejects the lack of a present moment, that it subtracts itself from the much of capital’s manufactured infinity.


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