‘Weighs Like a Nightmare’, Historical Materialism Ninth Annual Conference
(8−11 November 2012)
Next evening, Profane was sitting in the guardroom at Anthroresearch Associates, feet propped on a gas stove, reading an avant-garde western called Existentialist Sheriff, which Pig Bodine had recommended.
Thomas Pynchon, V (1963)
I want to consider the politics of the Western under the sign of ‘epic nihilism’, which I derive from Alain Badiou’s The Century (2007: 85). Previously I have used this concept to analyse the ‘Spaghetti Western’, as a form which explicitly engages in a left politics of nihilism. We might say that these Westerns operate in that mode suggested by Walter Benjamin, via Naville: the ‘organization of pessimism’. What I want to do today is to attend to some of the equivocations of this ‘epic nihilism’, vectored particularly through what we might call ‘late’ US-westerns. I have in mind here the emergent revisionist Western on the late 1960s and early 1970s, in which the political crises of that period (especially the Vietnam War) came to inflect the form of the Western. This is, therefore, a parallel case to the Italian Western. To do this I will focus on one particular case, Robert Aldrich’s 1972 film Ulzana’s Raid. Something of a political exception, Aldrich was a union activist in Hollywood. He was also responsible for perhaps the most nihilist ending of a film (alongside Monte Hellman’s Two-LaneBlacktop (1971), with the literally apocalyptic Kiss Me Deadly (1955). In the case of Ulzana’s Raid, what I am concerned with are the tensions and equivocations of political nihilism.
First, I want to set some of the coordinates of the politics of nihilism, and especially the ‘epic nihilism’ of the Western. My approach will be, admittedly, idiosyncratic and impressionistic. I want to select a number of moments, literary and filmic, which trace the coordinates of an equivocal politics of nihilism. My concern, in particular, is how these moments trace a politics of nihilism through a particular politics of labour.
A Very Brief History of Western Nihilism
We can consider the dubious kind of politics of nihilism at work in the writings of Joseph Conrad. Crucial to his work is the conception of a fundamental absence of transcendent or transcendental value. This is most clear from Lord Jim (1900), when after the eponymous central character is found guilty of cowardly misconduct for fleeing his ship while it seemed to be sinking the judge of the inquiry commits suicide. The implication appears to be this is a result of the collapse of value, later given its most resonant formation by the character Stein:
A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavour to do, he drowns — nicht wahr? . . . No! I tell you! The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up. So if you ask me — how to be?
His answer to the rhetorical question is, famously, ‘In the destructive element immerse.’
Yet this recognition of the collapse of the transcendental signifier is answered with a politics of labour, of the job well done, embodied in the cooperative work of the ship’s crew. The unpleasant nature of this politics is everywhere, from Marlow’s remark on the map of Africa in Heart of Darkness (1900):
There was a vast amount of red – good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there, a deuce of a lot of blue, a little green, smears of orange, and, on the East Coast, a purple patch, to show where the jolly pioneers of progress drink the jolly lager-beer. However, I wasn’t going into any of these. I was going into the yellow. Dead in the centre.
Matters are even more explicit in The Nigger of the‘Narcissus’ (1897), in which the smooth and efficient running of the ship, the only bulwark against nihilism, is disrupted by the ‘nigger’ and by the socialist agitator. The nihilism that results from the ‘death of God’ is answered by a politics of labour that holds only one ‘value’ – efficiency – which is at best neutral, although in fact definitely constructed as the domain of the right. This is a colonial and capitalist politics of domination.
In terms of the Western, we can find such a politics of efficiency everywhere. To choose a more recent example, the neo-Westerns of Cormac McCarthy most explicitly evoke both nihilism and the katechon of efficiency. Usually declaimed in burnt-out churches, just to make the point, McCarthy’s declarations of cosmic nihilism are a persistent feature of his work. The Judge in Blood Meridian (1985) puts this in typically portentous style:
A man seeks his own destiny and no other, said the judge. Wil or nill. Any man who could discover his own fate and elect therefore some opposite course could only come at last to that selfsame reckoning at the same appointed time, for each man’s destiny is as large as the world he inhabits and contains within it all opposites as well. The desert upon which so many have been broken is vast and calls for largeness of heart but it is also ultimately empty. It is hard, it is barren. Its very nature is stone. (348)
This ‘universe of blood’ is not exactly redeemed but only resisted by moments of quiet containment; such as John Grady, in All the Pretty Horses (1992), quietly tapping the ash from his cigarette into the turn-up of his jeans.
In the domain of film, we can consider Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), in which the decision of the gang to suicidally attempt to save one of its members is signalled only by the laconic instruction ‘let’s go’. Again, the appeal is to a quiet activity of necessary labour, the one necessity in a world that has no meaning and necessity other than a certain code of ‘honour’ and friendship. The bulwark against nihilism deliberately aims at a minimalism, which itself achieves an overblown quality in the very repetitions that construct it as ‘code’ or habit. This is not (simply) the ‘will to power’, but rather the ‘will to efficiency’ – ‘wil’ against ‘nill’, but also the ‘wil’ that is ‘nill’.
The Infrastructure of Error
Robert Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid (1972) concerns a raid led from the San Carlos Indian Reservation by the Apache Ulzana, and the pursuit of the raiders by the US Cavalry, led by a naïve new lieutenant Garnett DeBuin (Davison) and the scout MacInstosh (played by Burt Lancaster), with the Apache scout Ke-Ni-Tay (Luke). Central to the film is the debate and discussion between MacIntosh and the lieutenant over the nature of the Apache and the means to hunt down Ulzana’s raiding party. The film is known for its brutality of presentation. In one of the opening scenes a US Cavalryman is escorting a female homesteader and her son when they are caught by the Apache raiding party. Begging the soldier to return and save her, the soldier turns and shots the female homesteader through the head before turning his gun on himself. The Apache, in pursuit of horses and ‘kills’, leave a trail of rape and torture of which the aftermath is graphically shown.
The lieutenant, son of a pastor, constantly tries to understand the cruelty of the Apache. Drawing the Apache scout into conversation, the scout explains that the infliction of slow death by torture is a means to take a man’s power. The Apaches on the reservation have become weakened and ‘old men’ in terms of status, while their world is ruled by a metaphysics of power gained through the taking of a man’s spirit. Although trying to maintain his Christian beliefs the lieutenant is soon ‘hating’ the ‘Indians’, while MacIntosh comments he doesn’t have time for hate, preferring to simply fear them.
Soon, the pursuit of the raiding party becomes a kind of game in which, as MacIntosh explains, the first to make a mistake will get killed. This conforms to Alain Silver’s characterization: ‘Most of Aldrich’s films, in their own genre contexts and particular plots, are explorations of the infrastructure of error.’ (2002) Having to conserve their horses and match pursuit with the faster Apache results in the constant attempt of each group to circumvent the others strategies. Ulzana leaves a raped woman alive, for example, to slow down the cavalry, or force them to split their forces to return her to the fort. This will then allow Ulzana to capture the cavalryman’s horses and slaughter the cavalrymen. The result is the final strategic bluff of the film, in which the cavalry patrol do split their forces to entice Ulzana into attack, while then planning to later rejoin and so surprise and defeat Ulzana. The planned strategy fails, as although Ulzana attacks the other troops do not arrive quickly enough and most of the original group are killed, with MacIntosh left mortally wounded. The lieutenant’s decision to sound the bugle also succeeds in warning off Ulzana, who escapes. MacIntosh remarks on the lieutenant’s error, before noting ‘there ain’t none of us right’.
The film ends with MacIntosh requesting to be left behind to die, rather than face the agonizing and pointless attempt to get back to the fort for medical attention. In the meantime the apache scout Ke-Ni-Tay has succeeded in running down Ulzana and returns with Ulzana’s body. After the lieutenant has ordered Ulzana buried, rather than taking his body or, as one trooper suggests, his head, back to the fort they leave. The final image is of MacIntosh trying to light a cigarette, before dying.
The film presents a twist on Richard Slotkin’s virtually contemporaneous thesis of ‘regeneration through violence’ (1973). Slotkin, critically reflecting on the continuity of this myth from the Western frontier to the Vietnam War, suggests the linking of the desire for independence with the capacity for violence as mechanism of rebirth. James Wood (2005), writing on Cormac McCarthy, has noted the equivocation in which Michael Herr hails McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985) as ‘a classic American novel of regeneration through violence.’ In this case critique is turned into valorization. Noting, instead, McCarthy’s attempt to articulate an ‘antimyth’, we could see the same task in Aldrich. In Ulzana’s Raid regeneration fails, precisely through error and the inability for violence to lead anywhere. The risk run, however, is the one Wood identifies as ‘metaphysical cheapness’, which is never far away in figurations of nihilism.
Reflecting on Aldrich’s films, Alain Silver writes:
the one constant in Aldrich’s work is that ultimately no one is untouched by the savagery of the surrounding world. For those who expose the more visceral layers of their psyche to it, the risk is intensified. It is not merely annihilation but also, what may be worse, a descent into an unfulfilled, insensate existence. If, in the final analysis, Aldrich’s sympathy resides most with individuals who are anti-authoritarian, with anti-heroes like Reisman in The Dirty Dozen or Crewe in The Longest Yard, it resides there because these are persons who survive. They survive by resolving all the conflicting impulses of nature and society, of real and ideal, of right and wrong, in and through action. (2002)
In the case of Ulzana’s Raid this doesn’t seem quite right. Certainly the film exemplifies the exposure of the psyche, particularly in the figure of lieutenant, whose ideals are shattered, but also for MacIntosh and the other troopers. Also, the sympathy of the film lies with MacIntosh, who has a Native American wife, and who is largely responsible for the sensible decisions made during the pursuit. He is marked as anti-authoritarian as the cavalrymen at the fort regard him as morally and socially dubious. Yet, of course, he does not survive and certainly does not ‘resolve all the conflicting impulses’.
It is in this way that the nihilism of the film plays itself against dialectical, or better, pseudo-dialectical solutions, of ‘resolving’ or ‘regenerating’. In particular, I think, it questions the resolution ‘through action’ that, as we have seen, often structures a dubious politics of nihilism. If action necessarily fails then its valorization fails also. Here is where Aldrich does not take the path of ‘metaphysical cheapness’ by invoking new nihilist myths (as does McCarthy), instead embedding nihilism in the very ‘infrastructure of error’. The nearest the film comes to metaphysical pathos is the scene in which a homesteader is trapped by the apache in his shack. Nearly burned out the apache kick in the door, but none enter. Then he hears the bugle of the cavalry, and starts to praise God. We cut to the cavalry troop to see the bugle is not being sounded, in fact it’s a trick played by the Apache. The result, considering the terrible death inflicted on him, is more bathos than pathos. This is a deflationary nihilism in which, as in the conversation between the lieutenant and MacIntosh at the end of the film, one is forced to pick knowing no choice is right.
War is God
Cormac McCarthy’s nihilist antimyth is ‘war is God’; this was recently retooled in Karl Malantes’s Vietnam novel Matterhorn(2010), with its proclamation, as Jackson Lears’s (2010) argues of ‘War as authentic experience: this is the nihilist edge of modern militarism, unalloyed by moral pretension.’ This form was perhaps best articulated in Ernst Jünger’s valorization of war as ‘inner experience’, in 1922. Despite Alain Badiou’s contention that we have passed beyond the ‘passion for the real’ figured in the scission of combat this shadowy continuity suggests a more problematic attachment to the forms of militarized nihilism. Here the modelling of efficiency finds its form in a disregard for ideology, hence nihilism, and a valorization of the act of killing as the ‘sacred act’ which permits contact with the ‘Real’. Of course, as any Lacanian would say, this is an evasion of the trauma of the Real through its displacement. Contact with the Real is predicated on the death of the Other and the survival of the self, hence the pronounced egotism of this ‘heroic nihilism’.
In contrast, Aldrich suggests war is a human-all-too-human ‘infrastructure of error’, evident also in his film Attack! (1956). What I am suggesting is, beyond its evident critique of the Vietnam War, Ulzana’s Raid speaks to a critique of the valorization of nihilism in combat and efficiency. While certainly not unproblematically poised the film’s acceptance of a nihilism of error that does not attain the ‘metaphysical cheapness’ of these myths, undermines a particular and singular form of ‘epic nihilism’. The latter examples suggest, however, the fleeting nature of this insight, which belongs to the particular configuration of the American experience of defeat in Vietnam. Marlantes’s work, in fact, suggests the ‘reversal’ of defeat into epic nihilism, and it is notable that Jünger’s elevation of war is also borne from the experience of defeat. This suggests the difficulty which an ‘infrastructure of error’ might have in breaking with the ideology of military nihilism.
The Ethos of Nihilism
To conclude, I want to borrow Alberto Toscano’s memorable citation from The Big Lebowski (1998): ‘Nihilists! Fuck me. I mean, say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos’. My suggestion is that nihilism, or at least in the dominant form I have traced here, is an ethos. To be precise, it is an ethos of labour, an ethos, to borrow from Fredric Jameson’s characterization of Heidegger, which is a ‘handicraft ideology’. In this form the ideology is of expertise and craft that is indifferent to the job itself, hence its nihilism, but only concerned with the doing of that job. It is ‘handicraft’ because it retains that element of personal expertise that will be eroded by the deskilling effects of capital – hence its relation to capital’s nihilism, rooted in the indifference of abstract labour, is somewhat equivocal.
The persistence of this form of ideology speaks to the constant reinvention of the epic, away from the form of national foundation and towards the form of nation ‘saving’. Hence, the Western plays a particularly equivocal role in the US in the 1960s and 1970s as this ‘will to efficiency’ incarnates a resistance to nihilism in the context of, admittedly limited, national self-questioning. That this is politically dubious can be seen in the ‘hard hats’ versus ‘the hippies’, and Jefferson Cowie’s tracing of the declension of US labour during the 1970s in his Stayin’ Alive (2010). In this case the disappearance of the West is tracked to the disappearance of labour (or certain forms of manual and handicraft labour).
Therefore, we might risk locating the twists and turns of this politics of nihilism qua politics of labour not only within the context of war, but only in the context of this collapse of the usual role of labour within the ideological and economic space of capitalism. In this way, Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid becomes not only an ironic commentary on the nihilism of war, but also on the nihilism of labour. Whereas the Italian Western responded with explosive outbursts of violence, embedded within longueurs, here we have violence, but within an ‘infrastructure of error’ that finally leads to resignation. This is, of course, not enough to escape this ideology, but rather, I think, it registers its internal faultlines and incapacities – a certain impossibility in the ‘will to efficiency’, a failure in labour as a bulwark. Perhaps a failure that points to the true impossibility of labour under capital.