alterity, contagion



In a temple deep in Cambodia, enshrouded in the deep jungles along the Nung River, is Willard’s target, Col. Walter E. Kurtz. Once a decorated warrior in the command of the U.S. Army Special Forces, Kurtz has ‘gone native,’ gathering together bands of Montagnard tribesmen into a new, warlike primitive society. He’s gone insane, intelligence officers in their air-conditioned trailers tell Willard; the decapitated heads on posts and Kurtz’s own schizoid ramblings on war and civilization and The Hollow Men seem to confirm their analysis. But what of The Ride of the Valkyries, the contradictions and hypocrisies of the American war machine, the hellish apocalypse at the bridge, the point of no return?

Lacan’s unattainable object of desire, the residue of the Real adrift in the symbolic order: the petit objet a. Lacan demanded that the formula be left untranslated; it is important to understand at his ‘a’ is autre, alterity, otherness. Zizek writes of the petit objet a as “the unfathomable ‘something’ that makes an ordinary object sublime… a tiny feature whose presence magically transubstantiates its bearer into an alien.”

The ethnocidal apparatus is in a unique position; its war is waged at precisely this idea of alterity, the ‘a.’ It strikes out at the Other not only for subordinating it into its own processes, for economic exploitation, but to protect itself. The Other can take on the form of a virus, it can transform, transmute, launch something into a process of Becoming – with no Other, there is only homogenized Being. Its very presence threatens the stability of the apparatus that engages on the ethnocidal venture in the first place.

Going native. Kurtz, in both Apocalypse Now, and the colonialist-era work on which it is based, Hearts of Darkness, embodies Zizek’s descriptions: alterity burrows in like a contagion, infecting Kurtz’s mind – it is by no accident that his transformation occurred in a fateful encounter with the natives during a humanitarian mission:

Col. Kurtz: “I remember when I was with Special Forces… seems a thousand centuries ago. We went into a camp to inoculate some children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for polio, and this old man came running after us and he was crying. He couldn’t see. We went back there, and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms. And I remember… I… I… I cried, I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out; I didn’t know what I wanted to do! And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it… I never want to forget. And then I realized… like I was shot… like I was shot with a diamond… a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought, my God… the genius of that! The genius! The will to do that! Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure.”

From that moment, Kurtz was changed from what he once was, a husband, a father, a soldier in the United States military, and became an alien figure. Becoming the Other, he is slated for destruction by his employers, the State, but the contagion, the Real, is a swarm; his killer, Willard, finds himself in the same transformative process. As he traverses the river towards Kurtz, Willard is shown by Coppola as travelling backwards through time – from the Vietnam War to the French colonialism and finally, to the stateless societies of the ‘primitives.’ Civilization slowly dissipates (maps collapsing into territories?), the Real rushing forward with every mile crossed. In the end, Willard kills Kurtz, but its not on the State Department’s terms. It’s on the terms of Kurtz himself, in a ritual slaying drawn from Frazier’s The Golden Bough; the divine right of leadership passing on to the one who has the blood of the leader on his hands. In a sense, Willard’s mission is a failure – the body of Kurtz may be destroyed, but the critical ‘a’, the real target, continues on.

Is what lurks at the core of ethnocide? The will to destroy the Real? Clastres tells us that ethnocide relies the destruction of the multiple – what has more multiplicities than becoming? – and its collapse into the singular, difference into the same. We have a web of interrelated concepts; the multiplicities of becoming operate in flows, and nothing consists of flows more than the Real itself. Lacan articulated the real as swarming, but if we were to render it into strict physical terms, we are confronted with something ever changing, ever moving, something fluid. The human body is always fluctuating in its appearance as its mental stratas shift and turn. Turning to the exterior world, we can see the truth in Manuel De Landa’s observation that if we could see far beyond our human perception of time, we would see nothing but never-ending flows: the immovable monoliths of mountain ranges would rise and fall in a viscous consistency.  The Soviets certainly blocked off flows in their own right; their so-called Socialist Realism, something ethnocidal in regards to creative desire, was intended to be the supreme doctrine of art in the communist utopia, replacing all other diverse forms of art. This singular, however, has no real bearing on reality; Realism as the opposite of the Real. Simply a mask, a Spectacle, nothing more.


Then, of course, there is the Capitalist Realism deployed by Americas across its own vast territories:

“I gazed out my window on the sea of dark clouds as my shaking seat jiggled the image into double vision; and I pictured the flat, geometrically divided western landscape below, wondering why anyone still bothered to travel in this cookie-cutter country. What was the use of visiting identical reproductions of the same Wal-Mart or adding new encounters of equally streamlined mentality to the roster? As far as I was concerned, everything was a part of the same fabric, woven for years in the drab bungalows of suburban North America.” (Bruce Benderson, Pacific Agony, pgs. 15-16)

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1 Response to alterity, contagion

  1. noir-realism says:

    Whoosh…. to the point, the swarm is seen again in your recent post as well. Bravo! This notion that we are all Kurtz’s now, bearers of the mark of Cain, the ethnocide of mind. I keep thinking of Badio and Zizek asking: Can we of the Left even think of something to replace Capitalism? It’s as if the neoliberals had finally succeeded in killing off all avenues of critique, as if the notions of the Left had died a final death and could no longer be resurrected in even a resuscitated form, as if we had all gone down that river of no return and discovered in our own bodies the truth of Kurtz. Instead of Bruce Bendarson I keep thinking of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot where one of the protagonist’s looks out the window and sees nothing but ashes, an endless plain of ashes forever.

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