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Dead Man (1995), Part II

Dead Man (1995), Part II


In Part I, we traced the way in which Jim Jarmusch challenged the idealised notion of the ‘American Frontier’. By offering a sober representation of life in colonial outposts, Jarmusch effectively destroys the idealised image of ‘The Frontier’ wherein America’s alleged ’Manifest Destiny’ was to be fulfilled. The notion of ‘The Frontier’ is central to America’s self-image, and thus we followed our inquiry by examining the beginning of the Frontier Myth, namely Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis. ‘The Significance of the Frontier in American History’ (Turner, 1893) has been celebrated as the single most influential work regarding the formation of American identity. Whilst Turner’s theory has been widely accepted by academics and prominent politicians alike, many of his contentions remain suspect. Notwithstanding its many flaws, his contentions struck a chord with American intelligentsia, and soon his theory became an orthodox view amongst historians. Yet, such a theoretical work, however influential, is not enough to create a defining moment for a collective consciousness, especially in a society which holds ‘high-culture’ with toxic suspicion and bitter contempt; an academic work such as his has a very limited influence in a society characterised by anti-intellectualism, and thus, there had to be something else in the works to transform a theoretical exercise into a cultural orthodoxy accepted by the masses as the self-evident truth.

What made his theory the defining feature of American Form of Life is not found in the strength of Turner’s argument; the decisive moment of its popular acceptance was delivered by a particular genre of popular culture: Western films. This is where American masses found the Turnerian concept of ‘Frontier’ and ‘freedom’ represented in an accessible form. As we have seen often, cinema played a prominent role in the construction and the maintenance of collective self-image. Its potential for propaganda was first realised by an American director, D .W. Griffith. Although the first feature length film in history directed by Griffith, The Birth of a Nation (1915), met strong opposition, it predicted many cinematically accomplished works produced during the 20th century and beyond. Whilst the likes of Leni Riefenstahl readily comes to mind as examples, cine-propaganda were produced by authors of great diversity. Under the reign of Stalin, many Soviet cineasts, such as Sergei Eisenstein, created cine-propaganda of epic proportions, and so did the Japanese, British, Italians, Americans, etc. Whilst it is hard to see Westerns as propaganda films, especially in comparison to other obvious examples such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956), they perfectly fit this description when one places them in the context of Turner’s thesis and the construction of America’s self-image. Hence, I shall examine the central role of cinema in the construction and the maintenance of America’s self-image, the particular role played by Westerns, and Jarmusch’s response to the image which iconised American Exceptionalism. In addition, I shall dedicate the second half of the Part II for an overview of unresolved contradictions existing within American Form of Life.


Amerika ‘the Beautiful’

Cinema has been playing the central role in constructing and maintaining America’s self-image. When one considers cinema as a propaganda tool, one cannot avoid mentioning one of the most prominent, and notorious, American directors, D. W. Griffith (1875-1948). He directed the first feature length film in the history of cinema, The Birth of a Nation. For this historic standing alone, it is generally regarded as one of the most important films of all time. It is also one of the most notorious, for The Birth of a Nation is a propaganda film with a white suprematist agenda. With this movie, Griffith grotesquely distorts the perception of American Reconstruction Period, glorifies the Ku Klux Klan, and demonises African Americans as ‘rapists’ and a threat to ‘civilisation’. The main theme of the movie was a call for reconciliation between the ‘North’ and the ‘South’ to safeguard alleged ‘Aryan-supremacy’ against the perceived ‘threats’ of non-whites.  This piece of white suprematist propaganda is nonetheless praised for its technical accomplishments, and universally considered to be the first ‘great American cinema’ by film historians and critics. Despite the long history of protests and condemnations for its content, in 1992, the United States Library of Congress deemed it ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’, and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry, thereby declaring it an American canon. Whilst Griffith’s film failed to find support for its message, it had set a text book example both technically and practically; the American revealed cinema’s potential as a tool for propaganda with his technical excellence. His footsteps were soon followed by directors with diverse political views, from Leni Riefenstahl to Chaplin, Sergei Eisenstein to Fritz Lang. Given its dynamism and mass appeal, cinema’s influence upon the public has been pervasive.

Whilst cinema has been used as a propaganda tool by both modern and contemporary politics as well as business to meet their ends, in America, it has been playing a central role in defining its national self-image. The reasons for the prominence of the motion picture in American Form of Life are historic, and thus contingent; it happened that cinema was the newest form of aesthetic expression. Whilst all other art forms preceded the birth of America and owe their developments to the ‘Old World’, and thus were met with hostile contempt as high-culture, cinema, as a recent phenomenon, was embraced not only as a novelty, but as a form of art and entertainment which uniquely suited the young republic. Despite the social fragmentation arising from the complex segregations amongst races, classes, and genders, and the resulting lack of social cohesiveness, there was one notion which took hold of popular imagination and swept away the masses: America as the ‘New World’, which is supposedly independent of the past. Quite obviously this is a false notion: its founding political principle, representative democracy, originated in Europe; its most dominant religion, Protestant Christianity, is also of European origin, although Christianity itself is one of the most ancient surviving religions which originated from the Middle East; and its dominant ideology, Industrial Materialism, is a crude appropriation of Cartesian metaphysics.. In short, the alleged newness of the so-called ‘New World’ does not present anything new or original; the only unprecedented aspect regarding America was the attitude of colonists who saw themselves as the vanguards of a new era, the notion which is later refined and articulated as American Exceptionalism. By the proclamation of the beginning of the ‘New World’, they were merely expressing a belief that everything from the past was wrong, and only they could correct it by ‘starting anew’. In any case, for Americans, cinema, as a ‘new art’ with unprecedented mass appeal, became the most important medium, and, despite stiff competitions from TV and on-line entertainment, it still plays a commanding role in determining America’s self-image. And it must be noted that there is one genre of American cinema which contributed more than anything in popularising Turner’s Frontier Thesis, and thus developing America’s self-image: Western films.

During the so-called ‘Golden Era’ of Hollywood, Western movies exerted a decisive influence both on film making and American identity. For example, John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) is lauded as one of the most influential films ever made, and the likes of Orson Wells studied it as a textbook model (Wells stated that he watched the film more than forty times in preparation for the filming of Citizen Kane). Whilst there were other, and arguably better candidates than John Wayne as a prototypical American ‘tough guy’, such as Philip Marlowe made famous by Humphrey Bogart, it is simply undeniable that a lone rogue gunslinger typically featured in Western films became the indisputable archetype of American heroes. From the perspective of directors and script writers, the reasons why these men of the ‘Wild West’ prevail against stiff odds comes down to their hardiness and resourcefulness; they are unorthodox men of action, and they can take down their far more well-organised opponents with their courage, will, and creativity. Yet, for most Americans, their heroes ‘win’ because they are ‘good guys’; it is as if to say that claiming moral high-ground guarantees God’s favour. The significance of such a characterisation of their ‘heroes’ cannot be overestimated; it in fact reveals the most essential aspect of American psychology. Americans suffer from this peculiar and overriding need to claim moral righteousness, a symptom uncommon amongst their colonial counterparts; Europeans generally need to feel superior, but not necessarily ‘good’. English philosopher John Stewart Mill, for example, simply deemed non-whites unworthy of humanitarian concerns for which he is still admired, and thus implicitly acknowledged and sanctioned the heinous crimes practiced by the British empire. Modern totalitarian regimes proved that this is not a unique trait for Europeans. Imperial Japan, for example, committed war crimes of comparable scale and seriousness to its German counterpart in the occupied territories during WWII, and the extreme violence was sanctioned by the belief in their innate ‘superiority’. In such instances of extraordinary violence, the perpetrators regard certain conditions, such as the state of war or the perceived difference such as race and gender, as the signal for the desired gratification of the ‘license to kill’, that is, the permission to ‘unburden’ themselves from moral and humane considerations. Such an attitude presupposes the criminals’ awareness of the evilness of their actions; they know that they cannot behave the same way toward their own. They commit great atrocities to the Other based on the belief that their moral standing remains intact once they remove themselves from the specific conditions that permits, or demands, them to act violently. And thus, the belief in their innate superiority and the compartmentalisation of their modes of existence proved to be sufficient for most groups of humankind to savage one another.

However, for Americans, the notion of superiority proved to be insufficient. As the first democratic republic, Americans see themselves as the bright beacon of hope for ‘humanity’. They refuse to see themselves as colonists, the mere equal of their imperial counterparts. As we have seen in the previous section, ‘The Frontier Myth’, Americans entitle themselves the rights to lead, not merely to rule. Yet, this Enlightenment aspect of American Exceptionalism was betrayed by the very way this nation began, expanded, and thrived without proper atonement: like its European counterpart, Americans have never properly addressed the colonial legacy, and the history of slavery in particular continues to plague the society. Whilst the narrative that emerged after WWII briefly justified the main tenet of American Exceptionalism, its ideological equilibrium was shattered soon afterwards. What remains from the traditional Exceptionalism is self-aggrandisement without reason; America claims its ‘rightful’ place of moral high-ground without properly appreciating its colonial past. To make matters worse, there is another confusion to add to this already convoluted American Geist; in America, the concept of a secular democratic republic is also fused with the religious element of the society. One cannot overlook the fact that the ‘first Americans’, or the Pilgrims, arrived to the ‘New World’ as the result of a religious exodus from England. Like political ideologies, religions sanction atrocities against the Other, yet, unlike the former, religions also demand the observation of moral righteousness. Conveniently, moral high-ground in religions is readily obtainable, for righteousness, like the notion of superiority, is in truth a question of membership and identity when it is applied to a group. And, as Dead Man shows in one scene wherein a missionary (Alfred Molina) demonstrates vicious racism against the character Nobody, Christianity, despite its teaching, sanctioned racism (White Christians retained their power over their ‘black brethren’ and other non-white Christians), colonialism (violence against ‘heathens’), and capitalism, as God rewards the hard-working and pious with financial gains in Protestantism, a dominant strand of Christianity amongst Americans. Seeing themselves as Christian, and thus morally ‘good’, Americans adopted a patriotism of a peculiar kind, according to which America is implicitly ‘good’, for, as Bob Dylan noted, they ‘know’ that ‘God is on their side’. Religious terms and allegories were purposefully employed not only by the religious, but also by self-proclaimed ‘Enlightened’ Americans, in order to pursue their colonial agendas. Take the notion of the ‘Manifest Destiny’, which declares that America is ‘destined’ to occupy the territory between the Atlantic and the Pacific. The very notion of destiny presupposes some sort of ‘divine sanctions’, the concept which is at odds with the Enlightenment project itself. Yet, Thomas Jefferson, a self-proclaimed ‘man of science’, was one of the most prominent proponents of this notion, and he employed it to great effect. Whether he actually believed this notion, that is, America’s divinely sanctioned right to invade foreign territories to suit their desires, is irrelevant. What matters here is that there was this peculiar need for Americans to be righteous, and Jefferson was fully aware of it when he appealed to this religious metaphor. And this peculiar need of American Geist to claim absolute moral high-ground, which can be only bestowed to them by the absolute being, creates a serious problem: since the ‘love of country’ becomes a matter of ‘Faith’, rather than a belief, which can be challenged and/or disproved, American patriotism disallows the process of rational self-examination performed individually, or the dialectical process of collective self-examination, to take place. This curious trait is the root of one of the most pronounced American Contradictions: Despite being founded on the modern philosophical principle, and being the champion of Industrial Materialism, American Geist remains stubbornly archaic. (It must be noted that the philosophical principle of Enlightenment is at odds with Industrial Materialism, which overrode the former. Yet, this contradiction is inherent in modernity itself, and thus not unique to America.) This contradiction was there from the very beginning, and, to the bafflement of observers abroad, it remains unresolved.

Given their need for moral righteousness, it is no wonder that slick and cunning operators of American noir, such as Philip Marlowe, stood no chance against cowboys; despite the popularity of ‘Bogie’, and the fact that The Big Sleep (Howard Hawkes, 1946) was selected for the National Film Registry, the moral ambiguity explored by American noir writers of 1930s only confirms American belief in rural values and their suspicion of a modern, urban Form of Life. Hence Western movies proved to be the perfect platform to construct and maintain America’s idealised self-image; it at once enforces the Frontier Myth by giving the audience a simple icon to entertain them, and offers a moral affirmation by representing an American patriarch as the ‘good guy’. Eventually, the American quest of the iconic representation of their ideal self-image met its end: it was Gary Cooper’s lone Marshall who stood his ground for justice against social consent. Whilst the Ringo ‘Kid’ (performed by John Wayne in Stagecoach) remains a symbol of fierce individualism, and Wayne still represents the entire genre of Westerns, the moral righteousness which American Geist desperately craves is exemplified by Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) of High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952). It cannot be overestimated just how deep and pervasive this film’s impact has been to America’s self-image; it was the very first film canonised by the US Library of Congress when it launched the National Film Registry in 1988. The lone individual who chose to face adversaries despite lack of public support is the perfect representation of the American ideal. He is a ‘real man’, a ‘good guy’ who stands alone on his ground in the face of overwhelming adversary, overcomes the ‘bad guys’ by strength (read: his beloved firearms), and converts his pacifist wife to violent retributional justice in the process; seeing the danger, Amy, Kane’s Quaker wife, takes a gun and kills one of the gangs. There are many who regard High Noon as the quintessential American film that perfectly expresses the ‘American way’. Yet, more importantly, High Noon’s Gary Cooper became the icon of American Geist. He is a ‘good guy’, and he ‘talks straight’, ‘goes his own way’, and ‘stands his ground’ with a gun in his hand. Despite the initial disapproval, most notably by John Wayne and Howard Hawkes who preferred to represent the ideal of American ‘man’ as an invincible‘superhero’ and thus immune to doubt and fear, Cooper’s Kane became the prototype of the American hero, and ‘he’ has been praised by both liberals and conservatives. Unsurprisingly, several US Presidents became enamoured with this character; Ronald Raegan and Dwight Eisenhower cited High Noon as their favourite movie, and Bill Clinton screened it seventeen times at the White House. It is only natural that every Geist preserves a work of art that manifests their idealised self-image. In terms of cinema, what could be La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960) for Italians, or Alexander Nevsky (Segei Eisenstein, 1938) for Russians, it is High Noon which gives ‘true expression’ of the American soul. And it is precisely this celebrated image of ‘American freedom’ which Jim Jarmusch cooly exposed.

In Dead Man, the ‘ideal’ of a white man is represented by none other than Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen), a cold-blooded killer with a distinct aura of invincibility. He is an outwardly stoic man of few words, and his killer instinct and peerless shooting skill earned him the status of a legend. He is at once feared and revered, and many see him as a supernatural existence, like Death itself. In the context of American history, Wilson must be considered as a sardonic expression of Industrial Materialism; his cold-bloodedness in his exploitation of everything elevates him in the eyes of white colonists. He is no ordinary killer; whilst he does not express any positive beliefs of his own, he strikes us as a man of principle. Elusive at first, we eventually discover that his is an absolutely negative one. His world consists of the fact that everyone dies, and, for Wilson, this entails: there is no significance to our existence. We live in the world without ends, only means, and his are guns and bullets, for they give him everything he needs: contracts, money, and even food (he calmly cannibalises one of his ‘fellow contract killers’ at one point). Whilst money and contract can buy his service, one should expect no loyalty from Wilson; against the contract, he kills two of his ‘colleagues’ without blinking an eye, and, if it is proved to be more profitable, he would show no hesitation in shooting Mr. Dickinson himself. The only reason d’être of Wilson is to prove a point: Nothing is sacred and everything is pointless, and thus he will do whatever he wants. He is even rumoured to have raped both his parents, murdered them, and cannibalised them. He is an ultimate survivalist; he has no reason to live except that he cannot be killed. The complaint that there are very few of us who are prepared to go this extreme misses the point; Wilson gives a sardonic expression to a logical implication of celebrated ‘Frontier Spirit’; the ruthless materialism which fosters instrumentalism manifested as extreme individualism and opportunism, which in turn deny the formation of basic trust amongst the members of a society. Such a society is a paranoid one, and thus, rife with mutual mistrust and becomes socially incoherent. Neither Jarmusch nor Henriksen miss a beat in portraying this iconically sinister character; Wilson offers a logically perfect expression of Industrial Materialism to the point of being both fearsome and comical. Thus, Jarmusch achieves something important: a double exposure of America’s self-image. Through his lens, suddenly, a vicious cannibal emerges and eclipses Cooper, the quintessentially ‘good guy’ who safeguards the principle of law, order, and morality. And this feat was made possible by Jarmusch’s cooly objective deconstruction of Frontier Thesis. Jarmusch presented an utterly unflattering image of America’s colonial outposts as they used to be, as well as what the world has lost in the process of colonisation by the non-stereotypical representation of Native American Form of Life. And thus, the implications of Jarmusch’s achievement with Dead Man, if properly appreciated, must mark a watershed moment of American Geist. Unfortunately, it was not to be. And there remain many contradictions in American Geist, tightly knit and impossibly convoluted to the point of being beyond recognition as a coherent Form of Life.


American Contradictions

At this point of our inquiry, it is important to have an overview of various contradictions existing within American Geist. As we have seen, American Form of Life consists of a multitude of unresolved contradictions which must be traced back at least to the 19th century when the nation building accelerated due to the rapid industrialisation. As noted in the section on Turner’s Frontier Thesis, by the late 19th century, Americans were ready to establish a national identity independent of European roots of colonists. As a young republic with rapid territorial expansion in remote areas, America lost a social and cultural coherence, and thus Turner answered the need for a new national identity with his celebrated thesis. Yet, despite the academic success of Turner Thesis, the fragmentation of American Geist persisted, and thus, in order to gain any insight into current problems existing within American society, we must critically analyse them in a historic context rather than blindly accepting the persistent narrative perpetuated by political oppositions for their respective political gains. And thus, in this section, I tried my best to be as objective as possible by limiting myself to the analysis of logical inconsistencies existing within popularly accepted statements on various topics. Whilst some of the contradictions listed here are not uniquely American, the way it affects American Form of Life is distinctly so.

Selective Humanism: Selective Humanism is a contradiction suffered by every Form of Life which imposes a double standard: its proponents advocate to implement a higher humanistic standard for ‘their own’, whilst denying the same treatment for the Other. In this sense, Selective Humanism is a modern contradiction rooted in the Enlightenment project; whilst the impassioned pursuit of realising the highest potential of human reason by the Enlightenment thinkers are undoubtedly praiseworthy, naturally these thinkers themselves suffered various prejudices, and thus, the project itself was deeply flawed at its inception. Proponents of Selective Humanism achieve the awkward selectiveness by denying the humanity of non-members. In order to achieve and maintain desired effects, Selective Humanism imposes arbitrary discriminations in order to differentiate one group from the Other. Membership criteria can be based on sex, gender, race, class, religion, nationality, spoken language, taste in music, preference of colours, and/or hairstyles. Whether they are positive (e.g., being a member of a glorified community) or negative (e.g., being a member of the Other), such discriminatory criteria are considered essential to the collective identity of a group. The problem is: such criteria are based on matters of facts, and thus, they are descriptive. The description of what is cannot be, and should not be, conflated with what ought to be. Thus, at least logically speaking, description of sex or gender cannot, and should not, be loaded with a value judgment. Being ‘white’ or ‘homosexual’ is a description of a matter of fact. And thus, being ‘white’ cannot be judged as the sign of ‘innate superiority’ just as being homosexual should not be the subject of moral judgments. Committing this fallacy is equivalent of saying: Drought is God’s punishment. Such a statement is false in many ways. Firstly, by appealing to the transcendent entity (God), that is, the subject of which human reason cannot legitimately claim any knowledge or understanding, the above statement is meaningless. Secondly, this statement violates the distinction between is and ought. The description of the state of affairs about the weather condition cannot be, and should not be, the basis of moral judgment. It is also useful to note just how irrational the statement of Selective Humanism is. By applying arbitrary membership criteria to deny the humanity of a certain ‘category’ of humankind, the belief of Selective Humanism is described as: Not all P is P. The above statement is simply as wrong as wrong can be. Still, this is one of the most frequently committed fallacies.

Since Humanism is a modern concept, Selective Humanism is a distinctly modern phenomenon. Whilst there can be numerous membership criteria to discriminate non-members, Europeans and others are satisfied with the notion of their alleged innate superiority. Not Americans: they feel the curious need to assert their moral superiority. As noted in the previous section, America’s supposedly exceptional moral standing above all others is allegedly justified with a few matters of facts: 1) America happens to be the first democratic republican nation; and 2) Americans decided to set the beginning of their story with the arrival of English Calvinists. As the first fruit of the Enlightenment project, America as a nation is thought to represent the hope for all humanity as the blueprint of fair governance which promotes and protect ‘freedom’, ‘equality’, and ‘justice’. The problem is, the alleged moral righteousness is at odds with the nature of American colonial enterprise which was advanced at the expense of Native Americans and slaves. In addition, the religious aspect of American Geist relies on the innate moral righteousness of the nation. So long as America observes ‘religious freedom’, its moral righteousness is guaranteed by God. The problem is: 1) Religion for most Americans is various strands of Christianity, and thus, the notion of religious freedom is not practiced universally; and 2) Despite Christian belief, that is, all humankind is equal in front of God, America is founded on Selective Humanism which justified the brutality exercised by white colonists against Native Americans and Slaves. Again, such a contradiction states: Not all P is P. By adding an additional layer of falsity, the contradiction between their alleged moral righteousness and the actual praxis of colonial expansion, Americans greatly complicated matters for themselves. (If you are interested in just how vague the membership criteria is of ‘humankind’, please read my analysis of Ex Machina). In Dead Man, we shall witness Selective Humanism in motion; the expansion of the colony was justified both by Christianity and the Enlightenment; Native Americans are sacrificed to establish the ‘greatest nation on earth’, and since they were supposedly inferior as well as being heathens, colonial brutality practiced by ‘pioneers’ is ’justified’.

Secularism and Religion: This is perhaps the most pronounced contradiction existing within American Form of Life. Founded upon modern Enlightenment principles, America has nonetheless retained its religious aspect to their Form of Life. This is evident by the way in which its genesis is recounted: according to the popular story, America has two distinct instances of inception. Firstly, the religious exodus from England arrived at the place later known as Plymouth Rock. Secondly, the colonists’ independence from the British Empire results in the establishment of the first democratic republic. The fact that Americans revere the colonial outpost started by English Calvinists, who did not play a role in the founding of the nation, reveals just how established Christianity is within American Geist; the majority of Americans do not question why someone who did not participate in the nation building, such as the war for independence and the drafting of the constitution, must be granted a special status as the ‘first Americans’ (After all, one of the major reasons that made the ‘Pilgrims’ leave the Netherlands is their desire to preserve English Form of Life). The extent to which American society remains religious is quite unusual compared to other developed industrial nations, and it has been one of the causes of serious bafflement amongst them. Whilst Jeffersonian secularism guarantees the religious liberty within the republic, this modern solution, which secures freedom of religious worship by excluding religions from the political process, has been met with suspicion and contempt by those who regard their respective religions as the central components of their lives. For one who refuses to ‘compromise one’s faith’, there is only one true law: the religious doctrines prescribed to all humankind by God.

It is plain that such a position cannot be reconciled with democratic principle: citizens of a democratic society must be prepared to accept the bounds of law and appreciate differences of views by maintaining mutual respect to one another. The problem with so-called religious fundamentalism is two-fold. Firstly, by placing so-called ‘divine law’ above the secular law, it denies the fundamental principle of humanism, that is, humankind has an ability to better themselves and limit unnecessary injuries both to themselves and to others by harnessing the power of human reason. By rejecting the self-governance of humankind, ironically, religious fundamentalism bestows the despotic power to a select group of humankind: the heads of religious orders. Since the religious authority is by nature unquestionable so long as one remains as a member of such a group, regardless of the scale of the given organisation, it is essential for religions to secure the absolute status for certain individuals within such an organisation: someone must be revered as the ‘mouthpiece of God’. Secondly, by appealing to the unconditional authority of ‘divine judgment’, religious fundamentalism denies the authority of government; even within a theocracy, there are always possible denials of the authority of governing bodies by breakaway factions. Ironically, such factions ultimately preserve the identical distribution of power within their respective organisations. Thirdly, by claiming the ‘Truth’ of their beliefs, the proponents of religious faiths are always going to dispute against one another. Since religious doctrines are ‘divine’, and thus absolute, the disputes amongst them are ultimately irreconcilable. Without the mediation of a secular authority, this dispute can soon become beyond the bounds of theological squabble; it becomes existential. All these phenomena point to social instability. Whilst such a turmoil is precisely what the Enlightenment project sought to remedy by means of secular democracy, despite being the first example of such an experiment, America has failed to reconcile the need for religious freedom and the secularity that guarantees its survival. This is simply due to the basic misconstrual of the very notion of ‘freedom’; Americans tend to conflate metaphysical notion of ‘freedom’, which is purely abstract and thus merely hypothetical, and civil freedom which grants freedom in exchange of civil duties and social obligations. Without grasping the most basic conceptual distinction such as this, one must suffer false statements such as: I am free to do wrong. Given the prevalence of such a confusion, this contradiction will survive within American Form of Life for the foreseeable future. Notwithstanding the lack of social coherence resulting from this contradiction, Americans found one common ground upon which a society might function: money. The rule of money over all the differences imaginable amongst the populace is clearly represented by Jarmusch with his depiction of American ‘Frontier’. Still, as we have seen, the contradiction within American Geist remains unresolved, and its ills have been in a full display.

Extreme Individualism and Absolute Subjectivity: Arguably, one of the significances of the introduction of Protestantism in Christianity is the shift of emphasis from theology and metaphysics, which are verified and contested within ecclesiastical order, to the notions of conscience and faith, both of which are highly individualistic and thus subjective. Whilst various strands of Protestantism do have their own theology and metaphysics, this shift of emphasis toward subjectivity and individuality in religion has had a significant impact. Whilst individual autonomy in interpreting the religious canon decentralised the religious authority, we observe two distinct implications of this phenomenon: whilst in Protestant Europe, the combined effect of individualism and the Enlightenment led to the decline of religion in general, in America, by encouraging a ‘personal’ connection to Jesus Christ, it bred what one might call hyper-subjectivity in the name of faith, and thus helping the establishment of extreme individualism of American Geist. Prior to examining the implications of hyper-subjectivity in American Form of Life, it is necessary to understand properly how and why this kind of subjectivity is deeply problematic.

The kind of individualism represented by Frontier Thesis and Western movies, and enshrined by many Americans as a ‘core value’ of American Geist, is contradictory to the most basic principle of civil society. As mentioned in the previous note, the notion of ‘freedom’ is completely misconstrued in the United States. Since every individual of a civil society must observe the law and engage in social and political process as a citizen who is respectful of the rights of others, ‘freedom’ as a right is never about ‘doing whatever I want’. When one fails to grasp such a basic conceptual distinction, there are severe implications. Firstly, a society plagued with such a confusion is paranoid in nature. Since everyone is only interested in fulfilling one’s desire and/or whim, no one can expect others to speak and act in good faith. We have seen the result of this collective paranoia everyday in the news: it appears that Americans have lost the ability and/or will to distinguish the truth from the falsity. The constituents are willing to swallow ‘fake news’, conspiracy theories, and/or propagandas in so far as they fit their respective world-views. From ‘Pizza Gate’ to the denial of human effects on the ecosystem, the evidence of cognitive dissonance in American society paints a staggeringly bleak picture. Secondly, this lack of basic trust in one another leads to the impossibility to establish a social coherence. For a society to maintain healthy function, its members must be entitled to enjoy a certain level of expectation in one another; one must be able to expect that one’s fellow citizens are going to respect one’s rights and appreciate social norms and the bounds of law. The loss or lack of such trust thus results in a given society’s inability to create a consistent narrative that defines its identity and its fundamental values. Whilst it is natural to have a certain degree of diversity of views about the identity and the values of a said society, the kind of Extreme Individualism adopted by Americans fragments a society into an aggregation of cults due to the impossibility to initiate a proper dialectic by its constituents. When each sect defends their beliefs as faith, not by proper arguments, the disagreements become existential confrontations. When every member of a given society is entitled to this kind of subjectivity, that is, the alleged ‘right’ for everyone to take justice into one’s own hand without, or possibly against, social consent à la Marshall Kane, the result is absolute nihilism: one becomes a cold-blooded survivalist like Cole Wilson. The logical implication of such a nihilistic survivalism is an absurd armed race against all.

Patriotism as a Faith: Whilst hyper-subjectivism suffered by Americans has many implications internally, one must also consider the external implications of this tendency. Yet, before examining them, one must understand how Americans overcome, however artificially, the resulting social fragmentation in order to maintain its ‘unity’ enough to function as a sovereign entity within the world. The key to binding the aggregation of these cults together as an individual entity is patriotism. Whilst money is a common language in America, the world of finance and trade does not know nationality, and thus cannot bring about the ‘unity’ which Americans seek. In order to gloss over a multitude of contradictions existing within American Form of Life, Americans tend to appeal to passion: patriotism, or ‘the love of country’ as commonly referred, is regarded as an unquestionable value for each and every American. Yet, what exactly means to love one’s country is vague. Given the severe social fragmentation observed in America, this question is outstandingly difficult one to answer for its citizens: no one can clearly and satisfactorily define ‘America’ for everyone. Americans bypass shaky standing of their beliefs by appealing to the notion of faith; since faith is a subjective belief, it is ‘private’, and thus, supposedly ‘immune’ to the interrogation of logic and reason. And it is only under the duress of patriotic passion that Americans come together as constituents of a Geist, however incoherent it might be. Since their patriotism is a faith, rather than a mere belief, America remains susceptible to a kind of Totalitarianism described by Carl Schmitt in his notorious work, Political Theology (1922), in which he defines sovereignty as the power to declare exception, that is, the state of emergency which nullifies civil rights and transfers great, if not absolute, power to the ‘ruler’. The irony is that Hyper-Individualism in America enables the absolute patriotism which in turn enables the power-that-be to cancel all civil liberties.

Anti-Intellectualism: To Turner’s delight, America offers a perfect environment for hyper-subjectivity to thrive. Since Americans have long embraced Turnerian notion of American character, one of its components, namely anti-intellectualism, puts an end to all attempts to interrogate the legitimacy of any personal beliefs, such as patriotism and American Exceptionalism. The problem is that modern democracy relies on the rationality and the intellect of its constituents for its healthy functions, and thus, anti-intellectualism cannot coexist with democracy without severely undermining the latter. And thus, the notion that the ‘democratisation’ of America has been achieved by anti-intellectualism is confused at best. And yet, by embracing the Frontier Myth advanced by Turner, America prepared itself for the path to populism from the early stage of its democracy. Yet, as seen in Dead Man, Frontier Myth is just that: a myth. The condition wherein bullets decide who lives and dies daily is a far cry from the most basic form of democracy.

Imperialism and Isolationism: Being a global empire, there is always a need for America to form a coalition; to be a global player means having stakes in every part of the world, and thus, in order to protect their national interest and further their agendas, it is impossible not to work with others. Yet, America, like its ‘heroic’ archetype of Western movies, oft leans towards Isolationism and likes to entertain the thought of ‘going solo’, even though it is never an option. Still, it is important to note the contradiction between America’s desire for Isolationism and its objective of global domination. This particular contradiction between its isolationist fantasy and its imperial agendas causes a strange inconsistency in its foreign and domestic policies: Americans simply cannot decide how they want to engage with the rest of the world. America is at once an Interventionist (e.g., World’s Policeman) and an Isolationist, the sometimes anti-immigrant nation built by immigrants, the leader of ‘free world’ while practicing Selective Humanism, and preaching the value of democracy to the world while domestically undermining its own by letting populism thrive. Given the hyper-subjectivity of Americans and the paranoid nature of their society, America is socially fractured, and it is no surprise that America has difficulties in establishing a coherent engagement policy with the rest of the world. In short, America remains confusing by being hopelessly confused.

Morality, Capitalism, and Industrial Materialism: Americans suffer a peculiar need to claim moral superiority. Whilst Europeans and others only feel the need to be superior, Americans need to appear ‘good’; like their ‘superheroes’, Americans must be the ‘good guys’ as their opponents are, naturally, ‘bad guys’. As Bob Dylan observed in his song, ‘With God on Our Side’ (The Times They Are A-Changin’, 1964), Americans believe the innate moral high-ground of their nation. The problem with this attitude is obvious: it fosters a fanatic patriotism which encourages unnecessary military adventure, Isolationism, Protectionism, xenophobia, and potentially leads to the establishment of an absolute sovereign through the declaration of the state of emergency which lasts indefinitely. Whilst patriotism of this sort is available for all Forms of Life, and human society in general must safeguard itself from its dangers, for Americans, their faith in their nation’s moral nature creates a unique contradiction. We have already noted that this faith originates from two sources: American belief in the ‘Christian character’ of their nation; and being the first democratic republic in human history. Whilst religious and the Enlightenment aspects of American Geist presents a contradiction of its own, their faith in their nation’s moral character creates another; the claim of morality contradicts with two ideologies which are essential to Americans: Capitalism and Industrial Materialism.

As I noted in my article on The Big Short,, Capitalism eventually starts to create needs to increase profits for free enterprises. As Deleuze and Gattari observed, Capitalism is ‘schizophrenic’ in this precise sense; with Capitalism, not only all desires need to be materially satisfied, it is necessary for it to create wants. As a result, in a matured capitalist society, one can easily observe how the world becomes the distorted mirror of ‘Desires’; nobody exactly knows why one desires what. At this point, one can only see ‘Desires’ spilled over to the world around us which has entirely distorted its picture. Now, it must be clear that such desires know no morality. If one insists on America’s innate moral superiority over others, one must somehow successfully argue that capitalism, and the ‘Desires’ fostered by it, are moral by their nature. The same contradiction applies to Industrial Materialism. Based on a crude interpretation of Cartesian metaphysics, Industrial Materialism encourages us to exploit the world as a source of material gain. Since its ethos is fundamentally Instrumentalist, and thus encourages us to treat everything as means, not ends, it has nothing to do with ethics. In fact, it is just the opposite: by encouraging us to exploit everything around us, Industrial Materialism is unethical by its nature. In Dead Man, the logical consequence of capitalism and Industrial Materialism is represented by the ‘town’ of Machine and the ultimate survivalist, Cole Wilson.


The Real Frontier

As we have seen, American Form of Life consists of a multitude of contradictions and thus it is impossible to capture and preserve a concise statement which represents American identity for every American; whilst this fact itself is neither ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in and of itself, without properly appreciating the state of affairs objectively, dire confusions arise from forcing a false unity by glossing over the diversity and the difference existing within American citizens. By insisting to establish a sweeping notion of ‘America’ and ‘Americans’, the focus of American politics is on the squabbles on collective identity, rather than resolving urgent and specific issues at hand. This is not to say that Americans, and all of us, should sweep aside unjust discriminations past and present. Understanding and resolving unresolved contradictions within a Form of Life by staying as disinterested as one possibly can must be the utmost priority to all agents, regardless of one’s perceived membership. And, remarkably, Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man offers us a glimpse of such a possibility through an unlikely friendship between Blake and Nobody. In Part III of this article, thus, I shall examine how these two lost souls come together as companions and transcend the historic boundary erected between the two people. The path to realise one’s agency is indeed narrow and challenging, yet, if one truly values one’s liberty and autonomy, one must not shy away from embarking on it. For, in the end, the only Frontier worthy of pursuing for any of us is not within the realm of the material world; it is the arbitrary limit of our understanding wherein we tend to dwell all too comfortably. Yet, in order to pursue this direction, one must confront and resolve unresolved contradictions existing within one’s Form of Life. (To be continued)

Dead Man (1995), Part III

Dead Man (1995), Part III

Dead Man (1995), Part I

Dead Man (1995), Part I