Archive for the ‘Elliot Sperber’ Category

Rise of the Planet of the Frankensteins

by Elliot Sperber

It seems these days that the name Frankenstein is used to designate both the scientist, as well as the monster that Dr. Victor Frankenstein creates in Mary Shelley’s early 19th century novel. But perhaps this reflects less of a mistake than a recognition of a deeper truth inhering in the character. For while both the creator and the creation are monstrous, it is the creator who is the more horrible in many respects. The man who would create the monster was not only a scientist, but a rich scientist working in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. Obsessed with electricity, power, and using this electrical power to create a ‘life form,’ Frankenstein directed his wealth and scientific knowledge into succeeding in this endeavor. That he does so at the very same time that new and horrible ‘forms of life,’ or ways of life, were being shocked into creation throughout the world by the Industrial Revolution and imperialism – and that these newly created ways of life of the colonized, enslaved, and industrial working class people were indeed monstrous – seems hardly coincidental, irrespective of Shelley’s intent.

To be sure, the novel Frankenstein’s subtitle is The Modern Prometheus. And Prometheus, readers may recall, was the Greek titan who, transgressing the rules of the gods, gave fire in particular, and technology in general, to humanity – mythopoetically representing a moment in human history rivaled in importance only by, among few others, the Industrial Revolution itself. As a result of this theft and gift, Prometheus was chained to a mountain and tortured by Zeus (in a manner not unlike the crucifixion of Jesus Christ). And as a further reaction to this transgression, Zeus created Pandora; it was by way of her jar that not only disease, but work was introduced to the world. That is, prior to Prometheus’s theft, there was no disease or work in the world. And throughout the world that industrial imperialism was increasingly subjugating during the period of Frankenstein’s creation and publication, work and disease were being introduced with great rapidity. Indeed, in his seminal The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi describes just how European colonizers often introduced work to the natives they conquered. Unwilling to toil for the invaders, the natives would remark that there was no need to work and earn money since there was plenty of food growing more or less wildly for them to eat freely. The response of the colonizers to this was to destroy the freely growing food, creating a state of dependency and thereby compelling the conquered people to work – creating work and disease, just like what resulted from the theft of Prometheus. But it was not imperialism so much as a new industrial imperialism that was transforming the world. And it is primarily this industrialism, yielding its monstrous electrical, economic, and political power that is represented by Dr. Frankenstein. This electrical power, like fire (and capitalism itself) requires the perpetual consumption of fuel or it will expire – and, so, it must consume the world.

In this light, we can see Dr. Frankenstein as a monster who creates monstrosities. But not only were conquered natives being monstrously subjugated by the British Crown, and their lands turned into monstrosities; the industrial working class was also being created during this time, and being subjected to monstrous conditions. As such, just as we can see Dr. Frankenstein as symbolic of the forces of science and industry, we can see Frankenstein’s monster as symbolizing to some degree the industrial working class and the slaves and other subjugated peoples of the empires – the poor in general who threaten and frighten the dominating classes. These monstrous forms of life, however, are not limited to people. The monster that Dr. Frankenstein created, which becomes hostile and harmful to people, can also be regarded as the natural environment itself. To be sure, with its increasingly destructive hurricanes, floods and other ‘extreme weather events’, and with its polluted toxicity, all caused by Prometheus/Frankenstein/Industry, much of the natural world today is being monstrosified.

But the monster-making of the combined forces of science, industry, and empire did not by any means end in the 19th century. Indeed, the 20th century’s biopolitical monstrosities are far too numerous to list. Aside from the monumental horrors of concentrated violence seen in genocides and nuclear bombings, and the more quotidian forms of diffused violence endemic to modern life, a new technology would find itself attached to the term Frankenstein toward the end of the 20th century: frankenfoods. Combined, like Frankenstein’s monster, from sundry parts, frankenfoods are distinct from the monster insofar as they are the result of not so much anatomical, but genetic engineering. And closely related to Frankenstein and genetics, or epigenetics, rather, is the 2011 film Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

It is a coincident that the Dr. Frankenstein character Will Rodman is played by the actor James Franco. In addition to sharing characteristics with Dr. Frankenstein, Will Rodman is also much like Prometheus as the technology he conveys to humanity directly creates great disease.

In developing what he hopes will be a cure for Alzheimer’s, Will Rodman conducts in vivo experimentation on a number of apes. But while the experimental drug increases the research subjects’ intelligence by extraordinary bounds, the drug also creates a deadly infectious disease in humans that, by the end of the film, gives rise to a pandemic which wipes out much of humankind, allowing the apes to rise to global hegemony in this Planet of the Apes origin story.

Early in the film, an accident leads to Rodman’s medical research program’s cessation. While the lab animals are thereafter euthanized, one infant chimpanzee is spared. Although he could have just as well been named Moses, the infant chimp is named Caesar. Brought to Rodman’s Bay Area home, Caesar is raised in Rodman’s house like his own child. Possessing an intelligence more powerful, we are told, than that of most humans, Caesar learns sign language, communicates linguistically, and develops into a sophisticated ‘person.’ In one pivotal scene involving a leashed dog barking at Caesar – who is also on a leash – a distressed Caesar asks Rodman if he is also a pet. And if he is not a pet, what is he? With his unique capacities, assembled by a scientist, this creation of Frankenstein/Rodman – Caesar – is a type of Frankenstein’s monster. But unlike Frankenstein’s monster, who was entirely alone and alienated in the world, Caesar is not completely unique. There are others, other apes, who are like him. Indeed, Caesar is not only a type of Frankenstein’s monster; he will become a type of Dr. Frankenstein as well.

When a violent incident results in his banishment from Rodman’s home to a primate refuge, Caesar learns to live among other apes. As befits his namesake, he attempts to organize these apes into an army so that they may resist the abuses to which they are submitted. But as these other apes are a mostly thoughtless and bestial lot, he decides to speed up the raising of their ‘class consciousness’ by exposing them to the Alzheimer drug under renewed development in Rodman’s lab. Shortly after the apes’ exposure to this drug, their intelligence greatly enhanced, they begin to understand Caesar’s plan for liberation. And it is not long before they have exacted revenge on their jailer and climbed out of the compound.

Having freed themselves from the primate refuge, the apes proceed to Rodman’s lab where the drug is being studied. Liberating the test apes there, they then head en masse to release the apes trapped at the zoo. And from the zoo, Caesar decides to lead his army to Muir Woods on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge. It is not long, however, before the police are on their trail. What results is an exciting battle in the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge, one that calls to mind Occupy Wall Street protesters’ attempted occupations of bridges. But rather than march right into the arms of the police, as Occupy protesters often did, Caesar directs his troops to climb over and under the bridge, avoiding and then surrounding the police and prevailing over their adversaries. Of course, it is not fair to expect the Occupy protesters to be able to climb as well as a CGI orangutan or chimpanzee. They might, however, still learn a thing or two from Caesar’s tactics and strategies, tactics that could have just as well been gleaned from Sun Tzu.

At any event, Caesar – the monster of Frankenstein who becomes a Dr. Frankenstein himself – winds up leading his wounded army to Muir Woods and safety. And while their freedom might have been only short-lived otherwise, the pandemic – a result of Rodman/Frankenstein’s experiments – that was only flaring up while they were making their escape from the primate refuge, engulfs the globe by the movie’s end, ensuring that their freedom (from humans) will be a lasting one.

At the end of Shelley’s novel Frankenstein’s monster escapes as well, banishing himself to the arctic. The story in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, though, leads one to wonder whether Frankenstein’s monster would have risen in revolt had he had the company and support of an army of monsters. To be sure, Frankenstein’s monster – unlike his cinematic depictions – was in possession of an intelligence comparable to what Rodman/Frankenstein’s intelligence drug provoked in the apes. Had he had the company of other monsters, who knows, they might have revolted actively. Or they might have revolted more or less passively, committing daily mini-sabotages as people tend to do these days in workplaces and other locations across the world. For just like in Shelley’s time, most people today are Frankenstein’s monsters of sorts. However, even though we are told, by enemies and allies alike, that we are all ‘singularities,’ we are not alone like Dr. Frankenstein’s sui generis freak of a monster. We may all be Frankensteins, but we are more like Caesar and the apes, together in our alienation. What we lack is their consciousness of their Frankenstein condition(s).

Perhaps the most important question raised by the problematic film Rise of the Planet of the Apes, however, is whether one can free oneself from Dr. Frankenstein (i.e. capitalism and its ideology) without becoming a Dr. Frankenstein oneself. Relatedly, the film prompts the question of whether we are all, to varying degrees, hybrids of Dr. Frankenstein and his monstrous creation. Finally, if Dr. Frankenstein, like Prometheus, brings disease with his technologies, one may wonder whether a radical conceptualization of health, which conceptualizes conditions of social justice as homologous with conditions of actual – as opposed to merely apparent – health, points at all to a way outside of this Planet of the Frankensteins.

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and contributor to

Melancholia: The End of a World, Not the World
by Elliot Sperber

While his latest film, Melancholia, appears to deal with the end of the world, Lars von Trier expressly stated in an interview conducted at the Cannes Film Festival at the time of its release that it is not about the end of the world; rather, he said, his film is about a state of mind.

With its lush effects and languid pacing, the movie has struck many as being decidedly dreamlike. And, as such is the case, it does not seem to be much of a stretch to see the film as expressing the subconscious — or unconscious — anxieties of the rich, as a class, who fear not the end of the world so much, but the end of their own particular world.

It is immaterial whether this anxiety is intentionally expressed, or not. We will examine it as a symptom, or set of symptoms. Indeed, in the year 2012 it is hard not to see this type of anxiety in the wide array of symbols that are employed throughout Melancholia. The movie begins with a prologue depicting, among other things, the Earth being destroyed in a collision with the larger planet Melancholia. Before this occurs, however, we are submitted to, among other images, several shots of dead birds falling to the ground in slow motion — reminding one of the mysterious mass bird deaths that occur from time to time in the present age of global warming. Additionally, the part of the world that directly collides with Melancholia is Africa — the part of the planet that is arguably experiencing the worst ravages of the capitalist-bourgeois economic order.

After the prologue, Part One, Justine, begins. Justine and her new husband are heading to their wedding reception in a limousine. There is something allegorical in the limousine’s inability to navigate its way. The car is too big to negotiate the narrow roads, frustrating its own raison d’etre. At any event, the couple arrive at the castle — Sweden’s Tjoloholm Castle, surrounded by a golf course — and Justine is greeted by her sister and brother-in-law who are angry at the newlywed’s tardiness. Hardly has she concluded her apology when Justine is distracted by a star in the night sky. What is that red star? she asks. Her brother-in-law, John, replies that it is merely Antares.

What appears to be a red star, however, is in fact the looming planet Melancholia. It is hard not to be reminded, in the year of Occupy Wall Street, among other uprisings, that the Red Star is an almost cliched symbol of popular revolution — i.e., something decidedly hostile to the rich, and to the castle.

Justine at first seems to be enjoying the lavish wedding party, but it is not long before she begins to withdraw into a deep depression. In one striking scene Justine is alone in a study, looking at art books opened to images by the Russian painter Kazimir Malevich. She suddenly tears down these images deeply associated with the Russian Revolution and the Red Star and quickly replaces them with ones by the very non-revolutionary Klimt, the counter-reformation painter Caravaggio, and Pieter Breughel, the elder. This is hardly the only allusion to the bourgeoisie.

One scene toward the end of Part One involves a wedding tradition in which guests are asked to guess the number of beans collected in a bottle — literally becoming bean counters. Bean counters, of course, have long been associated with accounting and economics. Interestingly, there are only two people in the entire wedding who seem at all concerned about honoring this tradition: the wedding organizer (who directly profits from these rituals) and the one character in the film who does not appear to be wealthy: the servant, a butler named Little Father. Given that Melancholia, one of the four humors of medieval physiology, is associated with the skills of counting, numbering, and measuring (particularly the activities of counting money and measuring land), this scene functions, albeit obliquely, irrespective of von Trier’s intentions, as a critique of consumerist ideology. Aside from the butler (the only character who is a member of the working/serving class) and the wedding planner, no one is interested in participating in the game, yet the game proceeds nonetheless. Indeed, by the end of Part One, Justine has detonated her just launched marriage and destroyed her hitherto valued career.

Part two, named for Justine’s sister Claire, begins with Justine returning to the castle after what seems to have been a relatively brief absence. Unlike the first part, which featured a wide variety of characters, Part Two has only five: Justine, Claire, Claire’s husband John, their child Leo, and the butler.

While Justine spends most of Part Two in various stages of withdrawal and depression, Claire worries about what is now known to be the advancing planet Melancholia. Invoking the authority of mainstream science, John insists that her anxiety (which led her to buy a bottle of lethal pills) is simply paranoia and that, on the contrary, the passing of Melancholia will be a glorious, once in a lifetime experience — meanwhile, we see John stashing emergency supplies in the garage.

In one scene Claire, seeking to comfort her increasingly depressed sister, decides to prepare Justine’s favorite meal for dinner, meatloaf. After Justine takes her first bite, however, she begins to weep, exclaiming that the meatloaf tastes like ashes.

That is, this quintessential Middle Class dish has become fused with a symbol of death in general and one of the bourgeoisie’s most unforgettable crimes — Nazism’s crematoria — in particular. Less hypothetically, the colossal wastefulness of beef production, of which Justine is likely aware, involves large-scale deforestation deforming sensitive eco-systems into millions of tons of ashes annually.

When he finally realizes that the Earth is in fact doomed, John wastes little time purloining his wife’s pills and killing himself. In a scene that evokes Caravaggio’s Conversion of Saint Paul on the Road to Damascus, Claire finds John’s corpse in the stable. Meanwhile, the butler has disappeared, presumably having left the castle for the village, which we are notably never shown.

In a scene toward the end of the film, a panicking Claire attempts to flee with her son to the village. Although the family’s cars won’t start, she gets their electric golf cart running and leaves. Due to natural forces, however, they cannot make it and are forced to return to the castle on foot. Upon their return they find Justine calmly waiting for them. Admonishing Claire for attempting to leave, Justine says: “This has nothing to do with the village.”

This ambiguous statement may be interpreted to mean that the world’s destruction has nothing to do with the village. Not only did the village not cause the destruction of the world — something that the the citadel, and cities, are responsible for — but the village is in some respects another world entirely, and one that Justine and Claire are restricted from entering. To be sure, while the capitalist class may have originated in the village, they have long since taken over the world and now rule from the castle (indeed, the film’s castle is surrounded by the typically bourgeois golf course). The village, according to this construction, is not simply a place, it is also a relatively innocent time. Perhaps this is why the viewer is repeatedly shown the medieval village in Pieter Breughel’s painting The Hunters in the Snow.

The film concludes with Justine and Leo collecting sticks with which to construct a magic cave that (so Leo thinks) will protect them from the arriving planet. Having collected these sticks, they arrange them into a sort of teepee (a too-late neo-primitivism?) and the three of them sit inside of it as their world is devoured by Melancholia.

While it is unlikely that Lars von Trier intended that his film should express a certain type of anxiety attending capitalist destructiveness — a certain “state of mind” — it is uncanny that all of these symbols (Red Star, Malevich, Melancholia, Meatloaf as ashes, Bean counters, etc.) not only appear in Melancholia, but are also ordered into a narrative so amenable to such an interpretation. Of course, destructiveness is not strictly the purview of the capitalists. At this point in time, however, it does seem that the capitalist world is, indeed, consuming itself into oblivion.

Flinty Clint’s Quaint Quackery

While Hollywood icon Clint Eastwood’s recent performance at the Republican National Convention in Tampa has been the subject of a considerable degree of criticism, much of this revolves around the mere form of his speech – e.g. his incessant stammering, and his use of an empty chair as a prop containing an imaginary Obama. Rather than examining the form of his speech, however, an examination of its content may provide us with some insight into the ideological situation presently confronting us.

Among the quips and commonplace distortions of fact that one has come to expect from such speeches (such as the suggestion that US forces invaded Afghanistan under Obama’s, rather than Bush’s command ) was the memorable if not completely clear statement that “we own this country.” Possessing multiple meanings, “we own this country” is ambiguous. On the one hand, in a loose sense, the idea is imbued with an emancipatory dimension. Indeed, the socialistic Woody Guthrie expressed something very close to this in his “This Land Is Your Land.” In his most well-known song, Guthrie suggests that all people own “this land,” collectively. It is “your land,” and it “is my land,” and it is “made for you and me.” Implied in this is the idea that if the land, the country, is made for all of us, none ought to be able to lord it over any of us, and none should have to serve another. However, while this collectivist sense is implicit in Eastwood’s syntagma, unlike Guthrie, Eastwood does not seem to be addressing humanity as a whole.

Rather, Eastwood seems to be exclusively addressing the Republican party. And though the term republican derives from the Latin res publicum – which means the public thing, or the thing held in common – the Republican Party views itself not so much as members of a community so much as owners, of private property holders, antagonistically related to members of the larger society. To be sure, Eastwood’s audience seems interested in the “commons” only to the degree that they can privatize it and reap a profit from it. Not only that, as one of the leading spokespeople of the conservative movement, Margaret Thatcher, phrased it, ”there is no society.” As the Hobbesian implication goes, we are all a bunch of atomized individuals with fundamentally opposed interests, individuals who must protect themselves from other individuals. And like Thatcher’s soul-mate Ronald Reagan, with his western persona, and other cowboy actors like John Wayne, it is noteworthy that Eastwood achieved his iconic status in large part through the portrayal of gunfighters – indispensable aspects of the apparatus employed in the extermination of the Native American population, those socialists, and the ‘privatization’ of the North American continent.

In light of this, it should come as little surprise that Eastwood’s statement concerning ownership would be diametrical to the ecological, indigenist notion attributed to Chief Seattle that “the earth does not belong to us, we belong to the earth.” Contrary to the sensibility inherent in that remark, the Republicans (but not only the Republicans) ardently believe that, no, the earth does indeed belong to them. They own it. And, consequently, they can frack it, and mine it, and drill it, and pollute it to their hearts’ content, irrespective of the harms such practices cause.

So, while Eastwood’s statement that “we own the country” and his remark that “politicians are our employees,” may hearken to the populism of Woody Guthrie, and to notions of democratic forms of self-government, this should not be confused with the fact that it actually represents a remarkably regressive notion of political life, one that is not only complementary with contemporary efforts by the Roberts Court, among others, to roll back the legislation of the Civil Rights Era and the New Deal, but much of the 19th century as well. Indeed, wrapped up in his statement is an extremely reactionary sentiment that would hurtle us back to well before the time of Lincoln, to the period prior to the Jacksonian Era, when only those who owned land were extended the franchise and allowed to otherwise participate in the course of social development.

Another part of Eastwood’s speech that ought to be examined concerns his quip about lawyers and businessmen. Rather than have a lawyer like Obama for president, Eastwood opined, it might be time to elect a businessman – as though George W. Bush’s business credentials and tenure in the oval office had not only not occurred, but had not initiated two huge wars, and paved the way for Obama’s kill list either – not to mention the fact that Romney is an attorney as well. Lawyers, Eastwood further explained, are always “devils advocating this,” and “bifurcating that,” and looking at both sides of things. Beyond the reproduction of the simplistic binary that posits merely two sides to things, Eastwood couples this with the presumption that looking at both sides is little more than a nuisance, an elitist indulgence that the decisionistic businessperson has little patience or time for. Of course, it is never a difficult task to raise a laugh with a lawyer joke. For who doesn’t dislike lawyers? Indeed, beyond the prospect of one’s adversary’s lawyer screwing you over lies the probability that one’s very own lawyer will commit just such an act. However, it is important to note that, for the most part, when a lawyer screws over his or her client, the lawyer is acting, beyond any other, in the capacity of the businessperson.

My point here is not to defend lawyers, but to point out the conflict of interests that of necessity arises when social relations are subordinated to commerce – a notion that, around Labor Day, one would hope would be at the fore of people’s thoughts. Nor am I defending the law which the lawyer serves. Written in large part by the forces of business, or by other forms of coercive power, in many respects the law transmits far more harm than anything salutary. Beyond the problem of unjust laws, however, which are ubiquitous, and the reproduction and institutionalization of harms, the fidelity to the mere letter of the law is the purest type of dogmatism. Indeed, it is only to the degree that the law pursues justice, rather than mere law, that it frees itself at all from such inertial stupidities. But just what are we referring to when we speak of justice?

As the theme of justice recurs throughout his work, Clint Eastwood’s films may give us some insight into this question. In addition to encountering the theme in relatively early films like The Outlaw Josie Wales, in which Josie Wales spends the length of the movie avenging the massacre of his family, the theme reappears in his middle and later work as well. In among others, we see the theme of justice in Eastwood’s Dirty Harry films. Most notably perhaps, the theme appears in the only Dirty Harry film Eastwood himself directed, Sudden Impact, involving a rape victim hunting down her rapists. In Eastwood’s masterpiece, Unforgiven, the theme occurs once more, when the notorious shootist William Munny comes out of retirement to avenge the slashing of a prostitute. However, while retribution, or retributive justice is an ancient form of justice, one dating back to the Code of Hammurabi’s ( c.1770 BCE) exhortation that one must repay an eye with an eye, and a tooth with a tooth, retributive justice comprises only one form of justice. To be sure, instead of seeing another lose his or her eye as a punishment, many argue that justice requires the replacement of one’s lost eye, or its equivalent. This theory of justice which, instead of bringing the harmer to the harmed one’s position, seeks to restore the harmed one’s pre-harmed position is known as restorative justice. Others, still, might see justice inhering in an arrangement of social life that precludes foreseeable injustices from arising in the first place. This notion of justice that seeks to obviate harms from arising, and distributes social resources in an equitable manner in order to do so, is known as distributive justice. These examples of alternate notions of justice, however, do not exhaust the subject.

In spite of this, though, and as much as his films contend with the issue of justice, Clint Eastwood does not seem to veer from the retributive model. While this may be unfortunate, it nevertheless should not come as much of a surprise. For over the course of Eastwood’s film career the retributive theory of justice has come to assume a hegemonic position within the so-called justice system. The most disturbing result of this has been the ballooning of the prison population. In the early 1970s around 300,000 men and women were incarcerated in the United States. By the end of 2010 the number of incarcerated climbed to over 2,200,000 men and women – an incarcerated population surpassing in both absolute and relative numbers the incarcerated populations of any other country in human history. Indeed, while the US has only five percent of the world’s population, it has 25% of the world’s total prison population. And while this statistic may to some degree appear to be tangential to the subject at hand, it leads us back to the point. For above all, in interrogating the invisible Obama, Eastwood is raising the issue of justice. Although he was mocked and derided for it by many, Eastwood should instead be lauded for putting Obama in the chair and submitting him to questioning, pantomiming the possibility that Obama, or Bush, among others, may one day sit in such a chair facing prosecution for war crimes.

But while Eastwood’s theatrical trick may in some respects be laudable, rather than interrogating Obama for the latter’s war crimes, persecutions of whistle blowers, unprecedented corrosion of the Fourth Amendment, and the maintenance of a kill list and the executions attending it, among other heinous acts, Eastwood instead expressed his support for some of the most grievous of injustices. Regarding the notorious prison at Guantanamo Bay, for instance, Eastwood expressed his opinion that it ought to be kept open, remarking “why close that, we spent so much money on it.”

Considering his premises concerning ownership and the merits of businessmen, among other things, it is not surprising that Eastwood and his fellow travelers would arrive at such conclusions. And while the people of the world are facing unprecedented injustices and harms, ranging from war to ecocide, to the elimination of the most basic conditions for well-being, like clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and nutritious food – conditions that in some contexts are referred to as the General Welfare, and are in many respects the preconditions of a just society – it is important to bear in mind that it is not only Eastwood and the Republicans but the Democrats as well who, owing to their basic political-economic philosophies, and the conflicts of interest these give rise to, are fundamentally incapable of pursuing anything beyond the most superficial, retributive types of justice. More than ever it seems that these ideologues, and their benefactors, can merely dole out their spokespeople, apologists, and disinformation experts, obfuscating the fact that their policies are the direct source of much of the injustice in the world. Until the question of justice is addressed in a critical and comprehensive manner, we will not have politics so much as the semblance of politics.

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and contributor to He lives in New York City, and can be reached at elliot.sperber — at —