Drive-In Part VIII: Underground

“Animals could be bred und slaughtered.”

  • Dr. Strangelove describing how mine shafts can accommodate survivors of a nuclear holocaust in How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb [1]
  • Kubrick’s brilliant satire on the cold war, the connection between sex and aggression, and communication failure should work well as a companion piece to this Zizek essay [2], an essay that links our culture in the US to the belief of many of its citizens in the validity of the preemptive strike against Iraq and to its fallout. The essay begins by offering various examples of how ideology works – “The explicit ideological text (or practice) is sustained by the “unplayed” … obscene superego supplement.” [3]. One of these examples is from the days of “Really Existing Socialism” and another is the military’s traditional relationship towards homosexuality, a relationship

    which operates at two clearly distinct levels: the explicit homosexuality is brutally attacked, those identified as gays are ostracized, beaten up every night, etc.; however, this explicit homophobia is accompanied by an … implicit web of homosexual innuendos, inner jokes, obscene practices, etc. The truly radical intervention into military homophobia should therefore not focus primarily on the explicit repression of homosexuality; it should rather “move the underground,” disturb the implicit homosexual practices which SUSTAIN the explicit homophobia. [4]

    The movie begins with a narrator describing ominous rumors about a Russian project, hinted to be the ultimate weapon, and then cuts to a suggestive view of a B-52 being refueled to the tune, “Try a Little Tenderness.” (Sexual allusion pervades the film, both visually, as here, and verbally, such as in the characters’ names.)

    In the next scene, head of Burpleson Air Force Base, General Jack D. Ripper, calls his second in command, Group Captain Mandrake, saying that he received orders over the Red Phone to put the base on “Condition Red” and to transmit Plan R – The “Go Code” for nuclear war – to their planes. The use of these phrases can help us remember another of Zizek’s examples of ideology working through its obscene underside – in his description of the movie A Few Good Men.

    …US marines accused of murdering one of their fellow-soldiers…followed the so-called “Code Red,” the unwritten rule of a military community which authorizes the clandestine night-time beating of a fellow-soldier who has broken the ethical standards of the Marines. Such a code condones an act of transgression, it is “illegal,” yet at the same time it reaffirms the cohesion of the group. It has to remain under cover of the night, unacknowledged, unutterable – in public, everyone pretends to know nothing about it, or even actively denies its existence… [5]

    Back at Dr. Strangelove, after showing us another general, Buck Turgidson, getting news (during his liaison with a bikinied secretary) that an attack order was intercepted, the film cuts to Ripper instructing the men at his base to shoot anything that approaches within 200 yards of the perimeter. He ends with a pep talk: “I have always expected the best from you, and you have never given me anything less than that.” Mandrake enters Ripper’s office to tell him that the radio is still playing civilian music, which he points out wouldn’t be on if a Russian attack were in progress, such an attack being the prerequisite for initiating Plan R. Ripper, after covertly locking his office doors and then uncovering a pistol on his desk, tells Mandrake that he will not recall the wing – He must stop “Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion, and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.” When asked, he reveals that he became aware of the conspiracy when he became profoundly fatigued after “the physical act of love.” To elucidate the primal connection between sex and power as analyzed by Freud and Lacan, Zizek uses another movie character, Kurtz from Apocalypse Now, but Ripper will do as a foil:

    While the explicit Law is sustained by the dead father qua symbolic authority (the “Name of the Father[6]), the unwritten code is sustained by the spectral supplement of the Name of the Father, the obscene specter of the Freudian “primordial father.…, in the figure of Kurtz, the… obscene father-enjoyment subordinated to no symbolic Law, the total Master who dares to confront face to face the Real of terrifying “ jouissance [7] is presented not as a remainder of some barbaric past, but as the necessary outcome of the modern Western power Itself. [8]

    We cut to the War Room, where the US President, Merkin Muffley, has called his Generals together. He asks General Turgidson how a nuclear attack order could have been issued when the president is the only one with the authority to give such an order. Turgidson reminds Muffley about Plan R, “in which a lower echelon commander may order nuclear retaliation after a sneak attack if the normal chain of command is disrupted…,” a plan prompted by a senator’s claim that the US deterrent lacked credibility. Turgidson adds that the planes’ radios are designed so that after the order is issued they cannot receive any messages except those preceded by the correct three letter code group prefix, a code that, in this case, only General Ripper knows. He suggests that, since recalling the wing is extremely improbable, the best course of action would be to launch an all-out attack on “the Russkies” which would reduce retaliatory casualties to the “modest and acceptable” number of ten to twenty million killed. In a twisted way, the reasoning behind finding such a number acceptable (and of completely disregarding the “Russkies’” casualties) evokes Zizek’s discussion of a debate about the fate of Guantanamo prisoners on NBC, in which:

    one of the arguments for the ethico-legal acceptability of their status was that “they are those who were missed by the bombs”: since they were the target of the US bombing and accidentally survived it, and since this bombing was part of a legitimate military operation,… This reasoning tells more than it intends to say: it puts the prisoner almost literally into the position of living dead, those who are in a way already dead (their right to live forfeited by being legitimate targets of murderous bombings), so that … in the eyes of the law, [their lives no longer count] .… If the Guantanamo prisoners are located in the space “between the two deaths,” occupying the position of … legally dead (deprived of a determinate legal status) while biologically still alive, the US authorities which treat them in this way are also in a kind of in-between legal status which forms [their] counterpart…: acting as a legal power, their acts are no longer covered and constrained by the law – they operate in an empty space that is still within the domain of the law. And the recent disclosures about Abu Ghraib only display the full consequences of locating prisoners into this place “between the two deaths.” [9]

    President Muffley, disgusted, tells Turgidson that he’s heard enough from him. He has General Faceman order the men from a nearby army unit to enter the base and get General Ripper on the phone, then he has Russian Ambassador Alexiy DeSadeski admitted to the War Room (over Turgidson’s objections that“he’ll see the Big Board!”) He then gets the Soviet Premier, Dimitri Kissov, on the hotline. In a famous sequence, Muffley tells Kissov that “one of our base commanders…went a little funny in the head [and] ordered his planes to attack your country.” Muffley offers to provide him with the targets, the flight plans, and the defensive systems of the planes. Kissov reveals that a doomsday device, which can destroy all human and animal life on earth, has been set to go off if Russia is bombed or if any attempt is made to disable the device.

    The communication between heads of the two rival superpowers of the time can help us recall the phrase “clash of civilizations,” a phrase Zizek uses when putting the so-named thesis of “Samuel Huntington [10] into perspective through the Abu Ghraib torture photos:

    [T]he clash between the Arab and the American civilization is not a clash between barbarism and respect for human dignity, but a clash between anonymous brutal torture and torture as a mediatic spectacle in which the victims’ bodies serve as the anonymous background for the stupidly smiling “innocent American” faces of the torturers themselves. At the Same time, one has here a proof of how, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, every clash of civilizations is the clash of the underlying barbarisms. [11]

    President Muffley asks his science adviser, Dr. Strangelove, if it is possible to build a Doomsday device with an automated trigger which cannot be disabled. Strangelove answers that in such a device, this feature is not only possible, but essential. “Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy… the Fear to attack. And so, because of the automated and irrevocable decision making process which rules out human meddling, the doomsday machine is terrifying. It’s simple to understand. And completely credible, and convincing.” This reply can be seen as having an

    obscene virtual dimension … inscribed into an ideological text in the guise of the fantasmatic background that sustains the emptiness of what Jacques Lacan called the Master-Signifier. The Master-Signifier is the signifier of … a threat which, in order to function as such, has to remain potential. [12]

    Strangelove continues that “the whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret,” angrily asking DeSadeski, “Why didn’t you tell the World, eh?!” DeSadeski replies, “It was to be announced at the Party Congress on Monday. As you know, the Premier loves surprises.” With this incisive satire of how the superpowers thought during the Cold War, now seems a good place to deliver Zizek’s next point:

    [I]n the XXth century, this link between power and invisible threat gets in a way redoubled or reflected-into itself: it is no longer merely the existing power structure which, in order to sustain its efficiency, its hold over its subjects, has to rely on the fantasmatic dimension of the potential/invisible threat; the place of the threat is, rather, externalized, displaced into the Outside, the Enemy of the power – it is the invisible (and for that very reason all-powerful and omnipresent) threat of the Enemy that legitimizes the permanent state of emergency of the existing Power… [13]

    Kubrick shows us the firefight between the army unit and the men at the Burpleson Air Force Base while a poster in the background displays the legend, “Peace is our Profession.” Ripper gets Mandrake to help him shoot at the “invaders” and elaborates on his “bodily fluids” theory. When the Burpleson men surrender, Ripper, afraid of being tortured into revealing the recall code, says “I happen to believe in a life after this one, and I know I’ll have to answer for what I’ve done. And I think I can.” He then enters the bathroom and shoots himself. Although Mandrake, by looking at Ripper’s doodles, finds out the three letters of the code (POE, for peace on earth/purity of essence,) the army unit commander, Bat Guano (who thinks Mandrake is a “prevert,”) requires a great deal of convincing to allow him to reach the President and deliver the information. The discussion of torture and “preversion” brings us to what Zizek considers the crux of the Abu Ghraib matter:

    [T]o anyone acquainted with the reality of the US way of life, the photos immediately brought to mind the obscene underside of the US popular culture [such as American performance art and “theatre of cruelty,” the photos of Mapplethorpe, the weird scenes in David Lynch’s films as well as]… the initiatic rituals of torture and humiliation one has to undergo in order to be accepted into a closed community. Do we not see similar photos in regular intervals in the US press, when some scandal explodes in an army unit or in a high school campus, where the initiatic ritual went overboard and soldiers or students got hurt beyond a level considered tolerable, forced to assume a humiliating pose, to perform debasing gestures (like penetrating their anal opening with a beer bottle in front of their peers), to suffer being pierced by needles, etc. [14]

    While Guano’s unit battles Ripper’s base, one of Ripper’s planes is hit by a Soviet missile. The plane loses three of its engines and is leaking fuel, but the Navigator believes they can reach their primary and secondary targets, although they would not make it back. The damage forces them to fly low, so they cannot be spotted on a radar screen. We cut to the war room, where SAC communications control tells the attendees that four planes have been destroyed and all others have acknowledged the recall code. As Turgidson tries to lead the others in a prayer of thanks, Premier Kissov calls and says that one of the planes that had been reported shot down may have only been damaged. Muffley apologizes that “they’re jamming your radar and flying so low, but they’re trained to do it. You know, it’s it’s initiative!” This last is a good word for the Abu Ghraib tortures, which

    cannot be reduced to simple evil acts of individual soldiers, they were of course also not directly ordered – they were legitimized by a specific version of the obscene “Code Red” rules… Abu Ghraib was not simply a case of American arrogance towards a Third World people: in being submitted to the humiliating tortures, the Iraqi prisoners were effectively initiated into American culture, they got the taste of its obscene underside which forms the necessary supplement to the public values of personal dignity, democracy, and freedom. No wonder, then, that it is gradually becoming clear how the ritualistic humiliation of Iraqi prisoners was not a limited case, but part of a widespread practice: on May 6, Donald Rumsfeld had to admit that the photos rendered public are just the “tip of the iceberg,” and that there are much stronger things to come, including videos of rape and murder. As to the institutional background of the Abu Ghraib “excess,” already in early 2003, the US government, in a secret memo, approved a set of procedures to put the prisoners in the “war of terror” under physical and psychological pressure and thus to assure their “cooperation” (the memo uses wonderful Orwelese: long exposure to strong light is called “visual stimulation”…). This is the reality of Rumsfeld’s dismissive statement, a couple of months ago, that the Geneva convention rules are “out of date” with regard to today’s warfare. [15]

    Muffley advises Kissov to put all his forces into the remaining plane’s two targets. Meanwhile, Major Kong, aircraft commander of the troublesome plane, finds that it cannot reach either of its designated targets. He orders his men to get to the next target opportunity at Kodlosk and overcomes numerous malfunctions in the plane’s equipment to drop his bomb there. We last see him in the legendary scene in which he rides the bomb, rodeo-style, to its destination.

    Back in the War Room, Strangelove offers to help “preserve a nucleus of human specimens” in mine shafts. He explains that top government and military men must be included “to foster and impart the required principles of leadership and tradition” and that, with ten females (selected “for their sexual characteristics”) to each male, the mine shafts could produce a gross national product at present levels in about twenty years. After Ambassador DeSadeski praises Strangelove’s “astonishingly good idea” and leaves, General Turgidson rants that the specimens must be… on the alert to prevent the Russians from taking over their mineshaft space, and he ends by demanding that “we must not allow… a mine shaft gap!” Strangelove, who had been in a wheelchair for the entire movie, stands up to say that he has a plan, and then exclaims, “Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!” This vision of the rise of Dr. Strangelove in a transformed US can draw us to the conclusion of Zizek’s essay:

    (Fascists invoked the threat of the Jewish conspiracy, Stalinists the threat of the class enemy up to today’s “war on terror,” of course). This invisible threat of the Enemy legitimizes the logic of the preemptive strike: precisely because the threat is virtual, it is too late to wait for its actualization; one has to strike in advance, before it will be too late… In other words, the omnipresent invisible threat of Terror legitimizes the all too visible protective measures of defense (which pose the only true threat to democracy and human rights, of course) if the classic power functioned as the threat which was operative precisely by way of never actualizing itself, by way of remaining a threatening gesture (and this functioning reached its climax in the Cold War, with the threat of the mutual nuclear destruction which had to remain a threat), with the war on terror, the invisible threat causes the incessant actualization – not of itself, but – of the measures against itself. The nuclear strike had to remain the threat of a strike, while the threat of the terrorist strike triggers the endless series of strikes against potential terrorists… The power which presents itself as being all the time under threat, living in mortal danger, and thus merely defending itself, is the most dangerous kind of power. [16]

    Although there has been a recent mass break from the prison we’ve been discussing, I’ll finish this entry with articles about closer-to-home fallout [17] from the preemptive strike and about more current uses [18] of this power. As Turgidson might put it, although I hate to judge before all the facts are in, it’s beginning to look like someone exceeded his authority.

    1. Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern & Peter George. Dr. Strangelove: or, How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb (1964.) in: The Kubrick Site: Dr. Strangelove: A Continuity Transcript.
    2. Slavoj Žižek. “MOVE THE UNDERGROUND! What’s Wrong with Fundamentalism? – Part II.” in: Lacan.Com. Undated (2004?).
    3. Slavoj Žižek. “Ego Ideal and Superego: Lacan as Viewer of Casablanca.” in: Lacan.Com. Undated (2005?).
    4-5. Žižek. “MOVE THE UNDERGROUND!
    6. “Name of the Father.” in: Wikipedia. June 19, 2013.
    7. I’m using “DUI,” an earlier entry of mine, for the definition of “Jouissance.” I had taken this definition from: Žižek. “Ego Ideal and Superego.”
    10. “The Clash of Civilizations.” in: Wikipedia. July 29, 2013.
    11-16. Žižek. MOVE THE UNDERGROUND!
    17. “USA Bradley Manning Trial Underscores Serious Accountability Failures.” In Amnesty International. July 31, 2013.
    18. Cora Currier. “Who Are We at War With? That’s Classified.” in: July 29, 2013.


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