Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Depraved Heroes of 24

A great piece by Slavoj Zizek without his usual obscure references.

The Depraved Heroes of 24 Are the Himmlers of Hollywood: The message of the TV series, that torturers can retain their human dignity if the cause is right, is a profound lie
by Slavoj Zizek

On Sunday, the fifth season of the phenomenally successful television drama 24 will start in the US. Each season is composed of 24 one-hour episodes and the whole season covers the events of a single day. The story of the latest series is the desperate attempt of the LA-based Counter Terrorist Unit to prevent an act of catastrophic magnitude and the action focuses on the unit's agents, the White House and the terrorist suspects.

The "real-time" nature of the series confers on it a strong sense of urgency, emphasised by the ticking of an on-screen clock. This dynamic is accentuated by technical tricks, from the use of hand-held cameras to split screens showing the concurrent actions of characters.

Almost a third of each episode is taken up by commercial breaks, which contribute to the sense of urgency: the breaks are part of the one-hour temporal continuity. Say the on-screen clock reads "7.46" before the break, we return to the series with the clock saying "7.51" - indicating the real length of the break, as if a live transmission has been interrupted. It is as if the continuity of the action is so urgent that it cannot even be interrupted for advertisements.

Such a sense of urgency has an ethical dimension. The pressure of events is so overbearing, the stakes so high, that they necessitate a kind of suspension of ordinary moral concerns; displaying such concerns when the lives of millions are at stake means playing into the hands of the enemy. The CTU agents, as well as their terrorist opponents, live and act in a shadowy space not covered by the law, doing things that "simply have to be done" to save our societies from the threat of terrorism. This includes not only torturing terrorists when they are caught, but even torturing members of CTU or their closest relatives if they are suspected of terrorist links.

In the fourth season, among those tortured are the defence secretary's son-in-law and son (both with his full knowledge and support), and a female member of the CTU wrongly suspected of passing on information to terrorists. (When her innocence is revealed, she is asked to return to work immediately and accepts.) The CTU agents, after all, are dealing with the sort of "ticking-bomb" scenario evoked by the Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz to justify torture (why not torture someone who knows the location of a bomb that is just about to kill hundreds of thousands of people?).

The agents treat themselves as expendable, ready to put their lives at stake if this will help to prevent an attack. Jack Bauer, the agent and central character played by Kiefer Sutherland, embodies this attitude. He not only tortures others but condones his superiors putting his own life at stake.

In the fourth season, Bauer agrees to be delivered to China as a scapegoat for a CTU covert operation that killed a Chinese diplomat. He knows he will be tortured and imprisoned for life but promises not to say anything that might damage US interests. When he is informed by the ex-president of the US that someone has ordered him to be killed, his two closest CTU friends fake his death. Both terrorist and CTU agents operate as examples of what the political philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls homo sacer- someone who can be killed with impunity since, in the eyes of the law, their life no longer counts. While they continue to act on behalf of the legal power, their acts are no longer constrained by the law. It is here that we encounter the series' ideological lie: in spite of the CTU's ruthlessness, its agents, especially Bauer, are warm human beings - loving, caught in the emotional dilemmas of ordinary people.
24 should not be seen as a simple popular depiction of the sort of problematic methods the US resorts to in its "war on terror". Much more is at stake. Recall the lesson of Apocalypse Now. The figure of Kurtz is not a remnant of some barbaric past. He was the perfect soldier but, through his over-identification with the military, he turned into the embodiment of the system's excess and threatened the system itself.

The problem for those in power is how to get people do the dirty work without turning them into monsters. This was Heinrich Himmler's dilemma. When confronted with the task of killing the Jews of Europe, the SS chief adopted the attitude of "somebody has to do the dirty job". In Hannah Arendt's book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, the philosopher describes how Nazi executioners endured the horrible acts they performed. Most were well aware that they were doing things that brought humiliation, suffering and death to their victims. The way out of this predicament was that, instead of saying "What horrible things I did to people!" they would say "What horrible things I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties, how heavily the task weighed upon my shoulders!" In this way, they were able to turn around the logic of resisting temptation: the temptation to be resisted was pity and sympathy in the presence of human suffering, the temptation not to murder, torture and humiliate.

There was a further "ethical problem" for Himmler: how to make sure that the executioners, while performing these terrible acts, remained human and dignified. His answer was Krishna's message to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita (Himmler always had in his pocket a leather-bound edition): act with inner distance; do not get fully involved.

Therein also resides the lie of 24: that it is not only possible to retain human dignity in performing acts of terror, but that if an honest person performs such an act as a grave duty, it confers on him a tragic-ethical grandeur. The parallel between the agents' and the terrorists' behaviour serves this lie.

But what if such a distance is possible? What if people do commit terrible acts as part of their job while being loving husbands, good parents and close friends? As Arendt says, the fact that they are able to retain any normality while committing such acts is the ultimate confirmation of moral depravity.

So what about the response to this hair-splitting? Some argue that at least the US is now more open and less hypocritical about its behaviour towards terrorist suspects. To this, one should reply: "If US representatives mean only this, why are they telling us? Why don't they silently go on doing it, as they did it until now?" What is proper to human speech is the gap between the enunciated content and its act of enunciation. Imagine a couple who have a tacit agreement that they can have discreet extramarital affairs; if, all of a sudden, the husband openly tells his wife about an affair, she would have good reason to wonder why he was telling her. The act of publicly revealing something is never neutral; it affects the reported content itself.

The same goes for the US's recent admission that it is using torture. When we hear people such as Dick Cheney making statements about the necessity of torture, we should ask ourselves why he has decided to make a public statement about it. The question to be raised is: what is there in this statement that made the speaker decide to enunciate it? This is 24's real problem: not the content itself but the fact that we are being told openly about it. And that is a sad indication of a deep change in our ethical and political standards.


Blogger Hype said...

that is one of the reasons I stopped watching it.

i liked the first season.

'necessity of torture'

we used to play torture when we were kids here in texas...

as i grew up i realized how wrong this was. looks like i am the minority.


January 11, 2006 4:05 pm  
Blogger _H_ said...

Great find Djeb , I have not read any of Slavoj's work before ( or if i have i was not aware)

a thought provoking read ...

January 12, 2006 4:04 am  
Blogger DJEB said...

No comment, jeannie? Too much to read, perhaps.

January 16, 2006 2:19 am  
Anonymous qonnor said...

Hmmmm. excellent commentary on a series that will most likely grow in popularity because we humans are morbidly interested in the ever sickening condition of life on earth in a very singular manner we identify with "sacrifice" for the so called greater good. In this series the the viewer identifies self with fascism.In nearly every case the ends are created to to endorse the perverse means applied to them as if necesssary to preserve an additional 24 hours of life to destroy every human construct and boundry we have elections to create, historically and hysterically. For the sake of 24 more.
I like this series. It exposes us for what we are. I am surprised that the "suits" in hollywood have allowed the brilliant Mr. Sutherland to push the wool over their eyes. I don't at all think that Kiefer as producer is endorsing the practice of lieing , torture, terrorism or the horrors that follow them. What he portrays is simple and true.what he produces is a commodity. A very lucrative, exciting, and entertaining commodity. It is a sick sad world that has not changed much, and shall change ever more slowly as time permits. Without good, EVIL is impotant. this is ART immitating life. Kiefer Sutherland is an artist. It is his job to show us the error of our ways. It is the job of humankind to recognize exactly what DJEB has recognized, and feel it deeply and passionately. Then, present an effective argument to sway us all into understanding what it is we are doing to ourselves. Without DJEB, without Kiefer Sutherland, without you, and most certainly without me, there is no hope, no ART, no one watching our reflection, no future worth living through. 24 reflects our world.If you don't like it, change it. The channel changing is the easy part. The world changing is the challenging part. With Sutherland's 24 it mayhap be the reverse. Per_verse!

Without prejudice.

January 17, 2006 10:21 am  
Blogger DJEB said...

I saw a boring episode or two and couldn't believe that Tommy Douglas's grandson was playing this part...

January 17, 2006 3:23 pm  

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