Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Back to Blogging

Well, I've been back at Michigan and have been back for a couple of months. It has been alternatively good and frustrating to be back. Part of the frustration is simply coming back to a more stable existence after two-and-a-half years--in Paraguay and in Paris. I like this title so I'm keeping my previous posts up but continuing here.

Tonight I watched Cache' with Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche. While it is richly filmed and well acted, I found it frustrating and absurd which apparently makes me something of a Pharisee amongst my peers. I do prefer the simple resolutions of classic film noir, even as those subverted the typical "happy ending". To be subjected to a thinly veiled allegory of bourgeois France's repression of its colonial violence (vis-a-vis the Algerians, et al) makes me ill, frankly. Why am I disappointed that it takes a German (Haneke) to place France's colonial history on the Freudian couch of personality and why did I find the ending of the film so distressing, when it clearly indicts the modern French bourgeois of deceiving (himself), repressing the truth and sleeping at the end, asking his son not to be so hard on him, suspending the resolution for an exposure of his unconsciousness?

It isn't that I suffer from some Francophobie, not at all. Just that I expect more from them--not only does this film deal brilliantly with the return of the repressed (violence against Algerians), but the movie itself is a symptom of the repressed topic of France's colonial history, recently re-enacted with France's intervention (or attempt at regime change) in Cote d'Ivoire and (returned) in part with the youth riots last year in France (darned American blogger software, I can't find my accents). This film (among few others) is too little, too late.

Flashback to an Agence France Presse exhibition of French photojournalism in the Bibliotheque Nationale, winter 2005. French photojournalism of the highest quality. And unconsciously hypernationalist with NO consideration of France's difficult relationship with its present and future colonies, internal and external populations. Had the exhibit been produced in the US, it would have been as right-wing enough for the Republican Party. Note the vicious struggles over historical presentations in the Smithsonian. The photos on display were uniformly of violence, shock and poverty abroad, in the US as elsewhere. France, however, was simply portrayed in terms of male political kinship and stability (Sarkozy, Mitterand, de Gaulle) and the reduxed narrative of the French liberation of Paris after WWII (which, one should remember, the US allowed in order to grant a measure of dignity to French politics). In an exhibition filling two halls, there was ONE small photo in a corner recalling the end of the war with Algeria. What made this exhibit so frustrating was the lack of a critical self-consciousness of France's position and actions in the world. When France invaded Cote d'Ivoire (not defending Gbagbo here, btw), there was NO criticism of France in the press, no anti-invasion demonstrations, no critical discourse or note of such discourse in mainstream media. Certainly Gbagbo is easy to hate, a racist dictator who foments xenophobic violence among the disaffected sectors of his country. However, should France so easily invade former colonies without any public debate? While in certain spheres (the Middle East, for example), France has maintained a pacific stance, in other, more hidden areas, France is also a power with neo-colonialist and deeply embedded capitalist relations in the modern world. Was it too much to ask their bourgeoisie to at least debate this more openly if they take the US to task?

So where my discomfort? If common European visions indict the US (correctly) for being such a strong power in the world, for engaging in a murderous and neo-colonialist war with Iraq and being a bully (I'm not defending US policy), then a modicum of self-reflexivity is in order, and this is only slowly coming to France. As Latour has recently pointed out, French universalism has given way to French exceptionalism of a kind that was unthinkable only 10 years ago (check out his pamphlet on www.prickly-paradigm.com, free to download pdf). One might wish that a reflexive universalism would inspire debate and the reinvigoration of democracy in France and abroad. Unfortunately, Sarkozian style politics and anti-Muslim hard-handedness belies the commonalities between right-wing US politics and those in Europe.

During the movie the 1961 massacre of Algerians calling for an end to colonialism was referenced. While the police chief Papon who was behind that massacre was sent to jail in 1998, it was only for the deportation of French Jews over 15 years earlier the murder of Algerians. Pas de justice pour les Algeriens massacres? It is precisely these skeletons in the closet that Haneke's movie points to and yet in proposing no path towards resolution, the movie encourages a certain apocalypticism, born of the jouissance that believes that we are seeing the "desert of the real." The danger of this jouissance is not its lack of control, the jouir of the jouissance, but in its own impersonal vision that constantly re-inscribes the very violence it decries. There must be a place, even imperfect, for empathy. Empathy may well be the weak and therefore failing messianic power Benjamin describes. Revenge and infinite hate was not.

It was frustrating to be called out for living in a racist order (the US) while living in a society where riding the Metro while Arab subjected riders of a wider class swath more often to daily police control. It was hard to see a country that prides itself on providing social services to the poor busting immigrants for selling vegetables to other immigrants for cheaper prices. It was frustrating to see a country with one of the most critical academic traditions be silent and inactive in the face of their own country's recent invasion without critical debate on any of the well-known academic discussion shows (also obliquely referenced in the movie). It is frustrating to see an allegory of France's colonial past only coming up now, when we have been dealing with Vietnam (L'Indochine) for decades with the painful implications of those processes.

I am far from the first to point out that it is often the very faults in ourselves that we find irritating in others. If the US is often rightly damned for its exceptionalisms, Europeans should also examine themselves for the implicit virtues they claim in comparison. If "Cache" really represents a beginning of coming to terms with France's difficult past, it has been a long time coming.