Volume 9, Number 2 (July 2012)
From The Battle of Algiers to Alien vs. Predator: Philosophical Approaches to the Globalization of Terror
(Geography, California State University at Northridge, USA)
The Americans are prosecuting this war as if they were defending themselves against a wolf pack. But this doesn’t work against viruses that have already been in us for a long time. There is no longer a front, no demarcation line, the enemy sits in the heart of the culture that fights it. That is, if you like, the fourth world war: no longer between peoples, states, systems and ideologies, but, rather, of the human species against itself (Baudrillard, 2004).
What if the true KGB Monster Plot was the very project to put in circulation the idea of a Monster Plot and thus immobilize the CIA and neutralize in advance future KGB defectors? (Žižek, 2006).
We’ve got to re-evaluate our definition of the word ‘enemy’ (Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of US forces in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, quoted in Oppel, 2010).
On August 27, 2003, the Pentagon scheduled a showing of the 1966 film The Battle of Algiers in order to learn how to avoid the fate of the French in Algeria, which was to "win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas” (Ignatius (2003), Kaufman (2003), Klawans (2004). Soon, the film, a tour de force examination of the vicious circle of violence in 1950’s French Algeria, was widely discussed and studied in academia and the military/intelligence community [see Schrepel, (2003), Winter (2003), Harrison (2007)]. In fact, this interest prompted a re-release of the film in theaters as well as the issue of a lavish 3-DVD set by the prestigious Criterion Collection.
A year after the Pentagon’s screening of The Battle of Algiers, the sci-fi action film AVP: Alien vs. Predator was released, receiving neither critical acclaim nor the attention of the Pentagon. Surely, there was good reason for this.
The Battle of Algiers is a critically acclaimed masterpiece of Italian hyper-realism, the product of exhaustive historical research, shot on location in the city of Algiers with the full support of the National Liberation Front (FLN), the very insurgent group the film depicted, which, at the time the film was made (and continuing to today) had become the Algerian government. The film even stars FLN leader Saadi Yaacef as himself (Yaacef was also a producer and script consultant). France’s failure to quell the insurgency in the city of Algiers, despite the capture or elimination of all the FLN’s leaders there, led to the loss of all French Algeria. The tactics and ideology of the FLN served as an inspiration to future groups, and the link between the FLN’s anti-colonial terror and contemporary terrorism seemed obvious to the Pentagon.
In contrast, AVP was a typical Hollywood commercial production, reveling in its one-dimensional plot, cliché characters, and dazzling special effects. Reviewers lambasted the film’s ridiculous dialogue, tiresome and unimpressive effects, and general silliness. AVP was different from standard Hollywood fare in only 2 ways, both stemming from the fact that the film was based on a comic-book series. First, there is an intricate mythology behind the story, a mythology reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft’s nightmarish pantheon of elder alien gods whose existence proves the insignificance of humanity (Bould, 2007). Second, by merging two well-known film franchises, the film “opens up some interesting questions about colliding ontologies – different eras, cultures, movie franchises, and media – and the dialectics of difference and identity” (Bould, 2007:1).
II. AVP and Philosophy
Despite the obvious reasons the Pentagon had in choosing The Battle of Algiers, there are compelling reasons why AVP would have been more relevant to the contemporary threat of globalized terror.
The ingenious hyper-realism of The Battle of Algiers is easily conflated with documentary realism. The film's hyper-real depiction of the real city of Algiers, its real vistas, the real faces of its inhabitants, the real textures of their clothes, and their real emotions are easily conufsed with reality itself. The film is taken as a mere dramatization of real events, obscuring the fact that at its heart, The Battle of Algiers is a profound conceptual reflection on the nature of violence and power. Certainly, the film is about the Algerian insurgency and the use of terrorism to fulfill the political ends of that insurgency. But the conflation of hyper-reality with reality hides the more important abstract reflection on pure violence (e.g. violence for violence’s sake) in the film, of the embryonic globalized terror which expresses itself in the film’s most poignant moments. The sum effect is that the film’s potential for provoking deep reflection on the nature of power and violence is all too easily missed. Instead the film is most often seen by policy-makers as a tactical manual to be integrated into existing concepts of counter-insurgency.
AVP on the other hand, with its outlandish sci-fi premise, luckily offers no nuance, and no easy mappings to contemporary realities. What lingers after zingers-in-the-face-of-danger and mega-violent alien battles recede from memory is the Lovecraftian eternal duel between Alien and Predator. Artistic shortcomings can be forgiven, because AVP is Hollywood’s version of a fable, providing its audience not a dramatic performance but irreducible conceptual singularities. These can be immensely productive, because it is doubtful that any existing worldview will easily digest the bizarre creatures, battles and mythologies at the heart of AVP. As the audience instinctively tries to reduce and frame that which cannot be reduced or framed, it questions its own basic assumptions about the world. These assumptions are full of “unknown knowns,” stealthy subconscious conspiracies that obscure the truth so long as they remain unexamined (Zizek, 2006). In other words, if one agrees with Žižek, that the “task of philosophy as the ‘public use of reason’ is not to solve problems, but to redefine them; not to answer questions, but to raise the proper question,” then AVP is a better starting point than The Battle of Algiers, because it raises many questions while providing no answers [Ibid.:142). Let us now proceed to examine in turn 4 basic concepts addressed by the two films: war, enemy, battle and victory.
What is the conflict about in each film, and how does each conflict relate to the contemporary war on terror?
In The Battle of Algiers we witness a clash of universals, between the French vision of a republican empire and the FLN vision of a liberated nation. The protests, assassinations, torture, executions and bombings carried out by both sides are tools. As FLN leader Ben M’Hidi says to his subordinate Ali La Pointe: “Acts of violence don't win wars. Neither wars nor revolutions. Terrorism is useful as a start. But then, the people themselves must act”. The Battle of Algiers is full of such scenes, brilliantly crystalizing the essence of the insurgency and the French response. Near the end of the film, when massive demonstrations are on the verge of forcing the French to abandon Algeria altogether, a French policeman demands of the crowd, “What do you want?” After a brief pause, the answers come clearly (a cloud of smoke obscures the crowd itself, so the voice becomes not that of a single individual, but a disembodied manifestation of the will of all Algerians): “Independence! Pride! Our freedom!” The war is for control of Algeria, and it will determine whether France will remain an empire or Algeria will become a nation.
We see a very different kind of war in AVP. There are no stakes, no causes, no politics. The predator race of extra-terrestrials created the aliens as the ultimate prey. They built massive pyramids as arenas in which to fight their prey. As for humans, an ancient inscription reveals that “they gave their lives so the hunt could begin.” In other words, humans were sacrificed as living cocoons for the alien larvae.
We are here in the realm of war for its own sake, not for power, not for a cause. In Baudrillard’s words, we are in the realm of the global, not the universal:
Terror against terror, there is no more ideology behind this. One is, from this point forward, far beyond ideology and politics. No ideology, no cause – not even the Islamic one – can explain the energy that feeds terror. It no longer aims at transforming the world (Baudrillard, 2002).
Globalized terror makes no serious demands. The means and the ends are the same: spectacular violence. This kind of terror is a desperate reaction against globalization, in the broadest sense of the word. The emergence of one world system means the disappearance of all distinct, singular worlds. The loss of these worlds fuels all globalized terror (Barber, 1996).
Globalization plays no role in The Battle of Algiers, which like a time capsule, preserves the precise geometry of the colonial world at the moment of its collapse: neat boundaries between the European Quarter and the Casbah, between linear French avenues and higgledy-piggledy Algerian alleys, between discrete, singular cultures. Watching this film, it is all too easy to forget that we live in a world where singular cultures no longer exist, where architecture, culture and thought are being rapidly homogenized into a single, hyper-commercial global culture (Ibid.). To forget the fact of globalization is extremely dangerous, for contemporary globalized terror is embedded inside globalization, reliant on global media, the global internet, global transportation and a global audience.
AVP, starting from its title, lives and breathes globalization. Posters for the film and its opening credits display the sleek, shiny AVP brand proudly: this branded title embeds the whole film within globalized, corporate culture. We see no corporations, satellites or intercontinental travel in The Battle of Algiers, but AVP presents us with Weyland Corp., its super-satellites and the crack team it assembles from every corner of the world (Alexa Woods starts off climbing a mountain in Nepal). Hollywood invented this cinematic lexicon of globalization, and it is on full display in AVP.
To resurrect French Algeria in confronting the question of terrorism today is to pretend that terrorism is something far away, both in space and time, not something that is right here, right now. Even though we can be aware of some differences between terrorism in French Algeria and globalized terror today, we will still be trapped in the “unknown known” that terrorism is an archaic throwback to be dealt with by military action in the distant, dusty periphery. Thus we miss the ontological difference between a brutal tactic in a local struggle and a perpetual total war between irreconcilable forces.
For Col. Mathieu, the enemy is the FLN, “a small minority that dominates with terror and violence.” His task is to “isolate and destroy it,” and to do so he organizes a methodical campaign of interrogation and torture to identify and eliminate FLN members. Though both sides are brutal, they still cling to a certain kind of chivalry. Indiscriminate killing and suicide do not come easily to them. Dialogue between enemies, however brief, is still normal. When FLN leader Ben M’Hidi is captured, he is brought before the press to calmly answer questions. After Ben M’Hidi is killed, Mathieu publicly pays tribute to his “moral fiber, courage and commitment to his ideals.” French police intervene on several occasions to save Algerians from French mobs. As for the FLN, they often hesitate before carrying out an attack. When cornered, they often surrender rather than fight to the death.
For the aliens and predators, dialogue has no meaning. Presumably, they don’t even speak a common language. They do not hesitate for a moment to kill their enemies and anyone who gets in the way. When a predator is cornered, he quickly kills himself with a massive blast to take as many enemies with him as possible. A horde of aliens sacrifice themselves so that the acidic bodily fluids that flow out of their crushed shells can melt the shackles of their queen. The only life that has value is that life which can kill the enemy. The only human to survive an encounter with a predator is Alexa Woods, who is allowed to live after she kills an alien. She is given weapons fashioned from the carcass of an alien and a ritual scar on her face as a mark of honor. She lives because she has become a predator.
The contrasts can be overstated. In truth, The Battle of Algiers plainly contains the unmitigated total enmity of AVP in embryonic form. Ali La Pointe chooses to be blown up rather than surrender. Hugging the young boy who has fought with him from the very beginning, they both accept a pointless death. The French calmly kill the boy along with the other FLN members. In these scenes, we sense that the French army and the FLN are proxies for an even greater violence. But this primal, unthinking violence is not explicit in The Battle of Algiers. It reveals itself at a subconscious level, for example when Ali La Pointe stares furiously into the camera as he is led to prison and a voice-over reads out his long criminal record, starting from the age of 13. His dismal life is not a product of French oppression. Rather, the struggle against French oppression is the only thing that gives his life meaning.
AVP, in all its blockbuster glory, does not hide anything. No filmic insight is required to see the total enmity that defines the film and makes it interesting. Like Ali La Pointe, the predators and aliens have no purpose besides fighting their enemies. The predators have bred the aliens for the specific purpose of a fight to the death. In essence, the predators and aliens have no independent existence. Their ontology is shared because neither can justify its existence without the war between them.
The Battle of Algiers does not depict a traditional pitched battle between armies. Col. Mathieu anticipates an “armed insurrection” like the Viet Minh launched at Dien Bien Phu, but in the end, it is a wave of massive street protests that leads to the collapse of French Algeria. Here we have a conflict governed by the spiraling logic of escalation. Street protests lead to beatings; sedition leads to executions; assassinations of government officials leads to campaigns of torture; bombings of civilians by pro-government militias leads to bombings of civilians by insurgents. Every battle is a one-sided raid, a challenge from one side to the other. Only two responses are possible: surrender or escalated violence. Such is the logic of terror both sides employ. In the battles, terror is a tool, and after one side wins, the battles, and the terror, will stop.
AVP’s battles are governed by the logic of singularity. Like the singularity line at the middle of a spiral galaxy, the violence here is always so intense that it cannot be outdone. The violence does not serve a purpose but is a type of ritual designed to confirm existential meaning. The aliens and predators have no reason to be in the pyramid except to fight. The battle is not a test of wills, but the culmination of fatal essence. Terror has no meaning for aliens or predators. Terror only has meaning for the humans whose sacrifice is necessary for the battle to take place. And these humans have no real tangible interest in this battle. Charles Bishop Weyland, the wealthy tycoon who assembled the crack team of scientists, explorers and soldiers of fortune to investigate the mysterious pyramid in Antarctica, is terminally ill, but justifies his presence on such a dangerous expedition as a kind of nihilistic joyride:
ALEXA WOODS: I've heard this speech before. My dad broke his leg seven hundred feet from the summit of Mount Rainier. He was like you. He wouldn't go back or let us stop. We reached the top and he opened a bottle of champagne. I had my first drink with my dad at 14,400 feet. On the way down, he developed a blood clot in his leg that traveled to his lung. He suffered for four hours before dying twenty minutes from the base.
CHARLES BISHOP WEYLAND: You think that's the last thing your dad remembers? The pain? Or drinking champagne with his daughter fourteen thousand feet in the air? I need this.
Like the ancient humans who worshipped the predators as gods, Weyland finds some kind of meaning through his participation in this other-worldly battle. For Weyland, and for the Hollywood audience, the struggle for survival and the fight for righteous causes can only be experienced vicariously. The battle as a thrill-ride is standard for Hollywood action films. Here, the senseless excesses of AVP allows us to clearly see the entertainment value of battle. Hollywood audiences never want the fighting to stop. Audiences crave more action, more violence, bigger explosions, scarier bad guys. And Hollywood delivers. The drama of film seems to have an inverse relation to the drama of everyday life. Watching The Battle of Algiers, we wouldn’t ask ourselves whether the conflict was inspired by boredom. But in AVP, that is obviously the case. Weyland, the predators, and we the audience eagerly consume the contrived total war since there is nothing better to do. Isn’t it true that globalized terrorists are more likely to be wealthy, educated, jaded and bored than poor, illiterate, naïve and passionate? What does that say about the root causes of terrorism?
The shared ontology of aliens and predators, their reliance on their mutual enmity for their very existence, holds at a higher level as well, at a meta-cinematic level, if you will. The very premise of AVP is a merger of two distinct film worlds. But instead of merely concatenating an alien and a predator into one film, AVP redefines each entity as part of a yin and yang dialectic. AVP, therefore, cannot co-exist with the Predator franchise, which lacks aliens. Neither can AVP co-exist with the Alien franchise, which lacks predators. AVP’s existence depends on the existence of two worlds with which it cannot co-exist.
Here we have a very weird ontology. The only orderly solution is for the aliens to retreat back into the Alien franchise, and the predators back into the Predator franchise. But is it possible to forget AVP? I would say no. The clash of the franchises is far more compelling than anything in the individual franchises precisely because it is so disturbing. After watching AVP, it is difficult of not impossible to keep the predators and aliens separate in one’s mind.
Is the contemporary war on terror any different? Both sides would like to wipe out the other’s existence and proclaim final victory. But can you wipe out half the basis of your own existence? On the other hand, can you raise the white flag and withdraw back into your own “franchise” and forget about the apocalyptic conflict that gave meaning to your (and your enemy’s) existence? Ever since the end of the Cold War, Hollywood along with the rest of humanity has been looking for a replacement conflict to lend meaning to a world suddenly suffering from a “radical loss of meaning” (Baudrillard, 1994). Can we accept a world without existential conflict? Do we, like the predators, willfully breed enemies just so there is someone to fight?
In closing, a warning about the dangers of ignoring the drastic ontological gulf between terrorism-as-a-tactic and globalized terror. Excessive paranoia is a weakness, because suspicion suspects all dangers except those arising from suspicion itself (Žižek 2006). It has been suggested that the second Iraq War was the result of a plot by Iran to have Saddam Hussein, Iran’s greatest enemy, removed while tying down the U.S. (Borger, 2004; Cockburn, 2004). If it is possible that the real Iraqi threat was the concept of an Iraqi threat, could it be that the goal of globalized terror is to propagate a belief in a total, perpetual war? Is the real viral threat in the war on terror the spread of the discourse of a war on terror? If so, how do you fight an enemy whose only goal is to convince you that you are at war with him?
Many Tadayon is a graduate student in Geography. This paper was presented at the Symposium: The Rhetoric of Threat. (California State University, Northridge, April 23, 2010). His thesis concerns the photography of Andreas Gursky and issues surrounding globalization
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