Author Archive

Dear Katniss,

If you’re reading, please consider this humble treatise as a token of my affection. Time and again, our love has been tested, equally by Peeta’s noble heroism as by your detractors’ defamatory bile. The latest such knave, Scott Weiner, emerged yesterday from his trollish cave, penning a condemnable screed against your revolutionary insurgency. Weiner references your revolution as a “post-Orientalist” phenomenon, which he views as a reflection of liberalism’s exploitative underbelly. As you and I have discussed, however, your laudable violence is hardly liberal, and instead reflects an abiding commitment to Frantz Fanon‘s liberationist violence.

Before your arrival, Panem was a seething, festering sore of political governance. As residents of District 12, we were underresourced, underfed, and underappreciated: our women were poor, our children emaciated, and our men rarely able to manage the psychological, social, and financial burdens of family upkeep. Our wages were low, and scarcely commensurate to our invaluable contribution to Panem’s militaristic, decadent economy. My grandfather Karl‘s warnings were prescient, and bore remembering: in Panem’s pre-revolutionary economy, we laborers risked dehumanization: alienation from ourselves and, perhaps most importantly, from our collective consciousness of common dignity.

When you returned from your triumphant Hunger Games, you inculcated our people with a sense of pride, a fierce urgency of revolutionary upheaval. Your violence was a model of rebellion, and your image an icon of our anti-imperialist politics. Where Gale–the erstwhile object of your flirtation, and now a Panem official in District 2–compromised his humanity, you rejected the prospect of political conformity, opting instead to cast off the yoke of your oppression, and of ours. Through your liberationist violence, you imagined a new Panemian humanity: where our industrial labor is duly compensated, and where each District’s profound creativity is heralded as representative of Panemian civilization. Contra Weiner, your violence was hardly a form of self-empowerment, so heralded in Ms. Winfrey’s antiquated texts. Rather, it was a vessel for humanity, for the manifestation of dignity in a liberated politics.

Where Panem’s prior revolutionists imagined a hierarchical vision of a new society, you refused exclusion, prompting a notion of egalitarianism that has inspired widespread, liberating revolt. You acknowledged Panem’s lumpenproletariat, the invisible society of District 13, as a revolutionary force, a dormant opportunity for liberationist mobilization. In your embrace of District 13, you also embraced your mockingjay identity, a palpable demonstration of your resilience and revolutionary leadership.

As Dan Nexon observes, however, your liberationist violence had its consequences: your post-traumatic stress disorder, a result of your trying management of revolutionary authority, has become increasingly apparent throughout the past weeks. If you’ll let me, I’d like to help you, to enable Panem’s liberation to continue. Call me, maybe?

May the odds be ever in our favor,

The Real Tarkin

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“Help yourself again, there is plenty and to spare!,” bellows the Dragon, as the nimble-footed Hobbit scampers from his gold-bedecked lair. So begins Bilbo’s brief encounter with Smaug, the scourge of Dwarvish civilization. According to Tolkien’s legendarium, Dragons have maintained a mixed relationship with Sauron’s dark powers, reflecting a diversity of motives for inter-civilizational violence. Smaug’s seizure of Thror’s Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, stems from opportunistic banditry, as distinct from his successors’ annihilationism. Smaug’s intentions, however, have little impact on the scale of his invasion, which terrorized Erebor’s Dwarvish inhabitants, as well as the Men of Esgaroth, the valley’s township. For one-hundred and fifty years, Smaug slept, and napped, and dozed, and every-so-often, preened himself on his kleptomania.

As compelling as Peter Jackson’s computer-generated dragoneering may be, Tolkien’s death of Smaug is, by all readings, a marginal event. Bilbo’s intelligence-gathering effort, mentioned above, is operationally successful, revealing the Dragon’s physical vulnerabilities. Smaug seeks vengeance against the Men of Dale, whom the Dragon casts as disruptive Quislings. In an unusual occurrence in Middle Earth warfare, Smaug’s assault is a limited engagement, as Bard the Bowman pierced the Dragon’s underbelly. Of course, Bard’s defense of Dale permits limited relief; soon after Smaug’s death, an Orc horde swarms Erebor, prompting the Battle of Five Armies. If Smaug’s death bore local relevance, the impact of the Battle of Five Armies was cataclysmic. According to Tolkien’s narration, the Elves, Men, and Dwarves vanquished more than three-quarters of the North’s Orc population, a decisive victory. The counter-Orc coalition’s warfighting logic transforms a century of Middle Earth’s geopolitics, as Jon Jeckell’s survey of the War of the Ring details.

Tolkien’s sprawling, grand-strategic analysis of the Battle of Five Armies overshadows a micro-perspective towards discreet violence. Tolkien’s Hobbit, the Five Armies’ chronicle, is quick to highlight the post-Five Armies unity of Elves, Men, and Dwarves, forged against the Orcs’ assault. The counter-Orc coalition equitably distributes Erebor’s spoils, recaptured from the Dragon’s lair. The successful conclusion of the Battle of the Five Armies reaffirms the existence of a “free peoples of Middle Earth,” an infrequent conglomeration of Elves, Men, and Dwarves. If we backtrack, however, corrosive, if justified resource squabbles comprise the aftermath of Smaug’s demise, a marked contrast to the triumphant, trans-civilization harmony of the post-Five Armies scene. Throughout the Quest of Erebor, Thorin’s Dwarvish company lays claim to both their mining kingdom and its riches. The Dwarves’ hereditary authority bears little relevance to the Men of Dale, who request a compensatory share of Erebor’s gold, due to the Dragon’s rampant, wanton destruction of Esgaroth. When Thorin rejects Bard’s claim, the Lake-men lay siege to Erebor, requesting assistance from Thranduil’s Wood-Elves. While Tolkien introduces the subsequent scuffle as a prelude to the Battle of Five Armies, the siege of Erebor is likely more revealing of the counter-Smaug insurgency’s internal politics.

Tolkien describes the fragmentation of the counter-Smaug insurgency as a moral failure: “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world,” laments Thorin, following the Battle of Five Armies. In this way, Tolkien occupies a stark posture towards the civil conflict literature: greed, rather than grievance, drives Middle Earth’s violence. As Michael Ross conveys, the early civil conflict literature’s greed/grievance dichotomy is dated, both in its underemphasis on the particularism of resource types, as well as how violent organizations manipulate illicit economies. While gold’s influence is apparently significant, the counter-Smaug insurgency’s organizational structure may prove more significant, in keeping with recent scholarship on the “organization of rebellion.”

The Dwarvish company–Thorin Oakenshield, Gloin, Oin, Ori, Nori, Dori, Dwalin, Balin, Kili, Fili, Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur–is a familial organization, crafted in accordance with a broad edition of Thorin’s family tree. From a non-fantastical perspective, we can draw parallels to a criminal mafia, which often relies on hereditary networks to distribute resources, facilitate violence, and shape strategic decision-making. Thorin’s Dwarves create a formative nucleus of the counter-Smaug insurgency, which in its initial form maintains dual objectives: Smaug’s eradication, and the seizure of Erebor’s riches. As Bilbo burglars Smaug’s lair, the Dwarves form a temporary, informal coalition with Bard’s Lake-men, who possess the manpower with which to vanquish Smaug. The insurgency organization, however, lacks an “overlapping social base,” which Paul Staniland describes as a prerequisite for cohesive politics–the partnership relies on rent-seeking opportunism, rather than a communal logic. As the organization’s decentralization mounts, the incoherence of the insurgency’s political organization gives way to its second objective, prompting infighting and internal fragmentation.

In keeping with Tolkien’s moralistic standpoint, Bilbo’s crafty extraction of the Arkenstone, the crown-jewel of Erebor’s cache, allows Middle Earth’s free peoples to reach a negotiated settlement. Consistent with BlogTarkin’s recent tack towards alt-history, further poliscifi researchers may find it useful to conceptualize alternative trajectories of the counter-Smaug insurgency’s internal conflict mitigation.

“The Battle under the Mountain,” Matt Stewart’s authoritative rendering of Erebor’s Battle of Five Armies.

The Batman and the State

Posted: December 30, 2012 by Daniel Solomon in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,
Superpowers and the State

A panel from Powers.

Pity the modern supervillain, Adam tells us. He’s a poor, decrepit figure, beholden to the deceptive whims of irrationality, distanced from the creative politics of his more practical predecessors. The grand image of global–or, better yet, multiversal–domination is a Mesopotamian artifact of superherodom.  The Joker’s low-tech banditry abounds in contemporary supervillainy, while Dalek “extermination” is little more than a charming, if impractical product of British public television. From a critical perspective, this shift is an unfortunate consequence of post-9/11 security cultures. If Judi Dench’s M is any indication–and s/he has been for a half-century–hero fandom should view the modern supervillain as a product of a more discreet Zeitgeist, of a less transparent, more opaque world of “shadows.” Hats off to Christopher Nolan, whose Joker is a mere interlude to Ra’s al-Ghul’s global League of Shadows, a happy marriage of Erik Prince (Bane, the mercenary) and young Emma Goldman (Talia al-Ghul, the vengeant anarchist terrorist spawn).

Superhero culture has a libertarian quality, which often interferes with an authentic understanding of state violence: indeed, the basic conceit of superherodom is the dominance of vigilante justice, which reigns over a bumbling state bureaucracy. State security forces are often incompetent, as in much of the Spiderman literature, or, even worse, hostile, as in the racially-tinged violence against the Marvel Universe’s mutant population. The Marvel Civil War is a partial exception: when the U.S. government passes the Superhuman Registration Act, the Marvel Universe’s superhero community engages in a destructive civil conflict, between the state-supported, military-industrial-complex-laden Iron Man faction and Captain America’s ideologically purist dissidents. Here, Marvel’s U.S. government is an obvious, if well-constructed commentary on the post-9/11 national security state, based on an impressionistic rendering of Bush-era counterterrorism policies.

When its constitutive agencies aren’t busy being goofy, the super-state is little more than a shell, which both superheroes and villains may evade with ease. J. Dana Stuster has artfully outlined the storyline of Batman Incorporated, a global network of batmen and batwomen that both combats global terror and bolsters regional crime-fighting. International legal approaches to transnational crime/crime-fighting control don’t fit easily alongside a KAPOW! onomatopeia, and so Batman Incorporated shirks the complicated question of state sovereignty. Similarly, both Nick Fury’s S.H.I.E.L.D., an international intelligence organization, and the Avengers, at points a UN-mandated peacekeeping body, are more reflective of the limits and possibilities of global governance than its domestic contexts. It’s difficult to trace the origins of superhero organizations’ global outlook, but one may assume that the nature of villainy plays a role: if the villain, be s/he Adolf Hitler or Loki, seeks global dominance, superheroes must rise to the challenge.

While contemporary supervillainy may fall short in its political logic, this shift has positive dividends in a more complex concept of the state’s response. Consider Nolan’s Bane: in The Dark Knight Rises, Alfred makes a brief reference to Bane’s mercenary participation in a “coup in West Africa that secured mining operations for our friend John Daggett.” Bane’s personality profile may be a pithy dig at West Africa’s regional instability. For the discerning Africa-watcher, however, it functions as a surprisingly prescient reference to the nature of disaggregated governance in coup-prone West African states. In the aftermath of Mali and Guinea-Bissau’s early 2012 coups, a trickle of research has demonstrated the corrosive influence of organized crime in both countries. As Ken Opalo has demonstrated, opportunistic cartel networks have taken advantage of Guinea-Bissau’s pervasive corruption, using the small, unstable country as a staging ground for Euro-African trafficking operations. In Mali, according to Wolfram Macher, illicit regional flows–in cocaine, cigarettes, and humans–have created a lucrative revenue base for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and steepened informal links between Malian officials and AQIM operatives. So, when Nolan describes Bane’s mercenary activity as a driver of instability in West Africa, he’s not totally off-base.

Bane’s nefarious West Africa affiliations reflect a particular type of governance, one which is not often in evidence in the incompetent bureaucracies of superhero yore: the “disaggregated state.” Anne-Marie Slaughter popularized the concept of disaggregated states in her book A New World Order, which described the international legal problem of governance networks–communities of policy practice that, despite their formal affiliation with state institutions, claim links to professional groups, advocacy organizations, and similar non-state actors. As with most things in international politics, disaggregated states have their underbellies: Dan and Adam have written at length (as if there’s any other kind of Dan-and-Adam writing) about the ways in which illicit networks and cartel organizations challenge the basic ontology of state-building. Jay Ulfelder has also expanded on this concept in his empirical critique of the Weberian state-building literature, which, being Weberian, emphasizes “ideal types” of violence prevention, eschewing an anthropological understanding of actual, human interactions with state institutions, bureaucracies, and networks.

Batman’s politics of the state are steeped in this literature, in a way that should be instructive for students of international politics. Consider Batman: Year One, Frank Miller’s widely-acclaimed 1987 reinterpretation of the Batman origin story. Year One introduces Batman as a literary foil to Jim Gordon, an upstart outsider who struggles to counter corruption in the Gotham City Police Department (GCPD). Gordon quickly confronts internal opposition from the criminal underworld’s GCPD allies, including Police Commissioner Gillian Loeb and his lieutenant Arnold John Flass. Corruption is hardly new to Gotham; the reader is not surprised when Flass draws financial benefits from a cocaine delivery operation, rather than stopping it. What’s notable, however, is the extent of paramilitary violence that follows GCPD’s corruption. Gordon describes Branden, a GCPD SWAT team leader and a recurrent Batman antagonist, as the head of a “lunatic gestapo,” which regularly massacres civilian protesters. Branden’s force indicates the extent of disaggregated state authority, which Gotham’s corrupt police department uses to both enforce and evade legal restrictions on its formal authority.

In further renderings of counter-villain violence, superhero enthusiasts would do well to consider the potential applications of Batman’s disaggregated state model. In the meantime, disaggregated state theory offers an importance lens through which we can understand supervillains’ violence, as well as the state’s all-too-frequent complicity in its occurrence.