Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Imperium

I heard a fascinating interview this morning on NPR with Robert Harris, author of "Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome." You can listen to it online here. Harris talks about his new book, Imperium, which is a work of historical fiction set amidst the developing Empire in Rome. Most fascinating was the historical research that Harris discussed. Did you know that one of the key events in the fall of the Republic was a pirate attack against the Roman port of Ostia? These stateless groups had the gaul (no pun intended!) to do what no organized state could and attack Rome right at its heart. The smoke rising from the flaming port of Ostia could be seen from the hills of Rome. Roman citizens, shocked that they could be attacked right at the heart of their realm, were easy pickings for opportunistic politicians. Records suggest that one speach actually included the phrase (in the context of convincint other nations to assist in combating the threat from pirates) "either you are with us or you are our enemy." General Pompey exploited this environment of fear to ram through the Senate new laws essentially stripping the populace of many of their substantive rights and paving the way to Empire. By the time Julius Caesar gained power (asserting dictatorial powers to save the Republic for the people, despite the common assumption to the contrary), momentum was too great to reverse the slide to Empire.

Harris also talks about the historical importance of the study of the Fall of the Roman Republic from the perspective of the leadership of the British Empire at its zenith. Which brings me to something of a tangent: James Bond. Ian Flemming's famous spy was, essentially, a literary reaction to the decline of the British Empire (Query: what was the cultural/literary/spiritual reaction to the fall of the Roman Empire, or the transition from Republic to Empire?? Christianity?). James Bond was someone who's very existence countered the gathering impotence of Britania. And after the Suez Crisis, when it was blatantly clear to all that the British Empire was not merely teetering on the brink, but that it was actively spiraling downward, Flemming's plots became more and more unbelievably fantastical. Bond was no longer merely assisting Britain and confirming her equal status amidst Russia and the US (as the early plots suggested), but rather Bond was singlehandedly saving the world from megalomaniacal villains intent on world domination.

As long as I'm committed in this post to a rambling style, let's back up and I'll explain why Bond has special meaning in my life. It has nothing to do with my background in Intelligence, because Bond was, in reality, so much more than that--Bond was a walking, Wagerian leitmotif, but more on that later. Bond is important to me because most of my Summers as a child were spent with my Grandparents in Berlin. Afternoon thunderstorms, a frequent event, would leave my Grandfather smoking and playing chess in the glassed-in veranda overlooking the garden, and my brother and me laying on the floor in their living room watching old James Bond movies dubbed into German (which neither of us spoke well enough to follow the dialogue). Bond movies can effectively communicate so much about these deeper themes when you strip away the dialogue. Take, for example, the comparative role of Bond and the respective SuperVillain. Robert Anton Wilson takes the side of the supervillain, arguing that this much maligned Bond character is really trying to advance society and bring about progressive change, while Bond is only interested in maintaining an essentially Victorian world order. Take the villain from Thunderball, for example, with his private estate "Palmyra" in the Bahamas. It's worth noting that Palmyra was an ancient trading city in Syria that collapsed amid the breadown of Pax Romana, and is also the picture at the top of this blog. I think that Flemming (and perhaps more important, the Director Albert "Cubby" Broccoli in the production of the movie series) unwittingly set up Bond Villains as collapse theorists--though generally Roddenberry-esque technotopians.

There is something very Jungian at work here. Who is the real hero? How does this dynamic change now that the Bond-archetype no longer exists to address the failings of one empire with regards to other empires, but rather to address the failings of empire with regards to rhizome (Bond has always addressed non-state or quasi-state actors, but in the past this has been within a conflict of empires context, and now it is within a hierarchy vs. rhizome context of the "war on terror). Specifically, take the current Bond movie "Casino Royale." I thought it was outstanding, and I think that Daniel Craig was excellent. Bond is a Jungian Jihad seeking the resurection of the Victorian-era "Caliphate" of the British Empire. In this context, Bond is the leitmotif introducing the theme of structural struggle, and it is interesting to watch how its developmet mirrors our cultural consciousness in general.

Terrorism, Pirates, Ancient Rome, the British Empire, James Bond, Supervillains. It doesn't get much better than this. Talk amongst yourselves...

7 comments:

Marc said...

Kiefer Sutherland's character in "24", Jack Bauer, comes to mind as our modern day James Bond. He is frequently faced with plots that put him at odds with hierarchical systems whose inefficiencies prevent him from accomplishing his missions to save the U.S. or the world from cataclysmic terrorist attacks.

He breaks all the rules and protocols, tortures various bad guys (and sometimes good guys) at will, has no loyalty except for his utilitarian concept of his mission, to maximize utility for the greatest number no matter what outrages must be committed to achieving that utility.

He's a "hero without a cause" it seems because ultimately most of the plot lines involve a corrupt U.S. federal government. One is left wondering why one should bother sacrificing for a doomed nation.

Jack Bauer seems to have a rhizome like structure to accomplish his missions by which he avoids hierarchical mechanisms by using personal relationships with colleagues and coworkers who break all the rules for him, and expect the same in return, from their shared beliefs in doing their job to save the world.


This was also pretty stream of consciousness. I am going with Jeff's theme in my post.

Big Gav said...

Robert Harris also wrote an op-ed on the Rome / pirates episode a few months ago:

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/30/opinion/30harris.html?ex=1164603600&en=27d838758e0a222d&ei=5070

The Bond as reactionary jihadi idea is an interesting one - has there ever been an example of a collapsed empire reviving itself though ? Maybe Justinian's partial resurrection of Rome comes close...

Big Gav said...

By the way, do you have a good reference for this - By the time Julius Caesar gained power (asserting dictatorial powers to save the Republic for the people, despite the common assumption to the contrary).

I've oscillated between viewing Caesar as a genius with good intent and viewing him as essentially a fascist dictator of sorts without ever managing to pin down the "correct" view...

Scats said...

i love the idea of Bond and the Supervillain locked in a structural struggle! it seems that it is revealed within the new Bond film too.

the villian appears more rhizomatic than Bond in that he's a non-state actor. although he acts out of mere self-interest and thus without the utopianism he loses a lot of his "Super" status. he doesn't believe in God, just a "reasonable rate of return". in the end he's just trying make a buck and stay alive. no grand vision here.

on the other hand, it is necessary for Bond to go outside of the bounds of his own hierarchy to accomplish his goals (is that usual in the Bond films?). So perhaps Bond becomes more rhizomatic as well? Although "going out of bounds" for him means working on his vacation, so maybe he never really escapes his hierarchy?

In any case his hierarchy certainly pulls him in again quickly with the RFID implant in his arm, which in turn needs to be removed by the Villain in order to enter the murky rhizome world of the Villain. Interesting that the torture scene happens in this world.

the structural paradigm has certainly shifted though, without a doubt. they even note it explicitly in the film when M laments the passing of the Cold War upon hearing of Bond's 'Bush in Iraq' moment of barging onto sovereign territory guns blazing, and making a bloody mess of everything. [Let's hope that when the Iraqis plead with Bush to "laissez tomber" (the words of the embassy functionary: literally, "let go") that Bush doesn't pull a Bond and blow the whole place up rather than face a defeat.]

even the opening sequence will carry the metaphor. Bond literally chases the badguy, a bombmaker (creative destruction?), over and around a structure. the rhizomatic badguy navigates the skeletal framework fluidly, moving within it in ways that its builders did not intend. Bond on the other hand is compelled to follow, but must rely mostly on brute force and technology, and is too slow to keep up, mentally or physically, with the unconventional movement and information processes of the badguy. the badguy only ends up getting caught when he re-enters the world of hierarchy, the embassy, Bond's structural turf.

it is interesting too that they took the gadgets out. technology isn't decisive in Bond's endeavors here. Tech also does not serve the usual deus ex machina role that it does in the other Bond films. the tech that he does use, the defibrillator, epipen, the surveillance tapes, homing device, are far from the bleeding edge. we've had those things in some form for years. actually the most cutting edge tech, the RFID chip, is only used on Bond himself to bind him further to his hierarchy. the tech here isn't man's salvation, it doesn't even serve him, it makes him serve it.

ultimately too his hierarchy fails him. the trail that M is able to follow goes cold, and the crucial piece of information is obtained because of Vesper's non-rational insight into his personality. which mirrors the way M used the same insight, as a mother-figure instead of a love-object, to get Bond to pick up the trail in the first act. so even the ends of hierarchy are only achieved by what little rhizomatic activity creeps into the system.

i'm sure there's more in there too. thanks for letting me ramble a bit.



btw, Jeff, have you ever read Colin Ward's "Anarchy in Action"? I think you'd find it useful.

Jeff Vail said...

Big Gav: Check out Michael Parenti's "The Assassination of Julius Caesar" for this alternative explanation of his role in history (as well as a very good discussion on what happens when modern writing on ancient history draw almost exclusively from intermediaries who were aristocrats themselves). I discuss the land-reform and "optimates" vs. "populares" struggle that engulfed Caesar, Tiberius Grachi, Sulla, and other great roman populists--basically, they all tried to sieze power to institute land reform in hopes to revert to the "glory days" of the Republic full of multitudes of small famers and landholders and away from the "Latifundia," or great plantations that were enriching the Roman artistocracy at the expense of the "middle class." Very Lou Dobbs (sorry, that's may be only a relevant joke in America). Anyway, I think that it is a fascinating historical account of essentially a structural, hierarchy vs. rhizome phenomena.

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