An earlier, abbreviated version of this piece appeared previously on Al Jazeera: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/12/when-revolution-comes-israel-2013121112851708923.html
The Hunger Games franchise has been hailed for spreading a new hopeful message of revolution to millennials around the world. Actor Donald Sutherland, who played President Snow in the filmic adaptations of the novels, believes the franchise has the potential to spur a global millennial revolution. He even reminisced in one interview about the “revolutionary” energy he felt as a young man in Toronto in 1954, as he left a theater outraged by the representation of social inequality and injustice in the double-feature Federico Fellini’s La Strada and Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. He was so moved that he felt compelled to throw stones or gravels at the presumably empty street in protest of all the injustice and oppression in the world.
Completing a Fulbright fellowship at Bir Zeit University in Palestine this year, I could not suppress another image that kept playing and replaying in my imagination: the image of young Palestinian children, some of whom could not be older than four or five years old, who are arrested by the Israeli occupation army on a daily basis for throwing pebbles and stones on similarly empty streets. Theaters for many of these children remain a luxury they cannot afford even if there were theaters in Ramallah. These children also need special permits from the occupation authorities to exit the Occupied Territories to watch the film across the green line.
In light of the particularly bleak context of radical postcolonial politics especially and the unfinished project of the Arab Spring, we have to ask ourselves not only what kind of revolution this franchise envisions, but for what (total transformation or reform) and more importantly, which youth they have in mind and where in the world exactly they are.
Sutherland is well known for his celebrated leftist activism and support for fringe radical groups such as the Black Panthers, and his opposition to the Vietnam War. Nonetheless, his remarks could be dismissed as either a nostalgic throwback to his student activism days (“We did it in ’68,” he was reported saying); a hyperbolic representation of youthful disobedience and rebelliousness (is this not Katniss’ main virtue?) that can be easily confused for the hard work required for a social revolution or, as a purely shameless PR campaign to promote the film. It could also be brushed aside as presumptuous and racist. To assume such a Hollywood fantasy, smacks of the colonial ideology of the “white man’s burden” and its capacity to foment world revolution. It might be ridiculous to deny the power of the imagination to elicit sympathy for the victims of oppression, but it is absurd to think that a single book or film series can spur a world revolution.
These twin questions of sympathy for victims of oppression and the revolutionary potential of the film franchise weighed on my mind as I watched the second installment of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire in Haifa a few weeks ago. Two things caught my attention during the film screening: first, the presence of several young Israeli soldiers in uniform in the row in front of me among the many young Israeli movie-goers, and second, the two rounds of applause that interrupted the movie. The first was a spontaneous, intense and prolonged round of applause in response to the kiss that the two contestants-lovers, Katniss and Peeta, shared. The second was a more localized and weak round after Katniss shoots an arrow into the center of the dome that short-circuited its hologramatic field, leading to its collapse and the rescue of the heroine.
The first round of applause foretold that any messages of compassion for the victims and revolutionary content that might have been, presumably, encoded in the film had already been sapped and sacked. In Hollywood’s ideological universe, as the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek points out a film’s romantic storyline usually adds an “ideological surplus-enjoyment” that diverts the spectators’ attention from its underlying coded messages of compassion and revolution, if they are there in the first place.
On the surface, there may be no apparent parallels between the fictional dystopian world of Panem and Israel’s apartheid policies and settler-colonialism in Palestine. The structural realities, however, are not that much different. But how did these young Israeli spectators, both civilian and military, decode the images on the screen? Could they have related Panem’s fragmentation into districts to the excruciating realities of the Palestinian cantons and bantustans, or the brutalization of the masses in the fictional and real world for that matter? On whom did they project these images as they witnessed these fictional realities? Witnessing up close the escalating levels of youth racism and violence against Palestinians, African immigrants and other asylum seekers in Israel, the question of the spectators’ sympathy for the victims of oppression and the potential of images of oppression and injustice to spur a revolution, must be tethered to the historical context of production and consumption.
The involuntary public display of affection that the young lovers were forced to perform re-invests the spectators’ emotional and libidinal energies in the love triangle, making it possible for them not only to draw their pleasure form it, but also to endure the boring details and machinations of the spectacle of mutual annihilation called the Quarter Quell. After all, the whole ordeal has nothing to do with the falling of Katniss into revolutionary subjectivity or with her training and formation as a revolutionary leader. She was simply manipulated by both the leader of the totalitarian regime in Panem to save her family, as well as by the vague revolutionary leadership as a revolutionary symbol for her iconic celebrity status.
The second round of applause, as weak it was, could indicate that some people genuinely believe in the revolution and that such Hollywood franchises can, in fact, usher the world revolution to come. Not so fast. In this so-called post-ideological age, as Žižek surmises, people enjoy large doses of ideological cynicism, in that they know very well that, in this case, these revolutionary messages and symbols that emerge out of Hollywood are mere ideological illusions. They know that these cultural commodities are nothing more than pop-culture escapist fantasies or “popcorn agitprops,” but they still believe in them.
This ideological cynicism is carried out on one condition: that people still continue to believe in these revolutionary messages in so far as someone else, an ‘other,’ really believes for them, thus allowing them to feel free to do whatever they want. Belief, for Žižek , is always belief through the other. It contains a minimum of reflectivity in so far as belief (trust) in something is tantamount to asserting that there are others who also hold those beliefs. As he states, “From the very outset, the speaking subject displaces his belief onto the big other qua the order of pure semblance, so that the subject never “really believed in it”.
From the very beginning, the subject refers to some decentered other to whom he imputes this belief” (Žižek 1997, 144-48). For example, in Israel, debunking the founding Zionist mythologies , especially the ones that draw on unsubstantiated biblical myths, is very common among academics and the public, but people continue to believe in them because there is an enormous population of Christian Zionists in the West who continue to believe in these myths for them.
It is important to remember that for Žižek, no ideological system can fully integrate or absorb the subject, because there is always some irrational surplus or residue adhering to an ideology that refuses to be integrated. That is, the subjects of ideology remain to a certain extent anxious about a certain level of meaninglessness and irrationality in ideology—that it does not all make complete sense the way it is represented to them.
Paradoxically, then, the very condition of freedom is the “awareness that the Other regulates the process in which I participate . . . since I know I am not involved. ” Hollywood today, I claim, is that stand-in for the symbolic other that believes for us so that we can avoid being involved and continue the detachment of our daily lives. Indeed, one might say that we are willing to pay increasingly exorbitant admission fees at the theater not simply to be entertained but to be relieved of the act of believing. In many ways, we hire an other, Hollywood to be precise, to believe for us.
Hollywood can thus go on believing for us in the social revolution, trivializing and mystifying it, while neoliberal global capitalism turns revolutionary theory and practice into profitable commodities and marketable brands in a culture that not only defines citizenship and civic engagement by our purchasing power and consumption practices, but that also uses these same revolutionary ideas as vehicles for legitimizing exploitation. The fact is that capitalist commodification of identities, as Rosemary Hennessey maintains, entails the separation of the organization of identity from the complex historical ways capitalism shapes the human relations of exploitation based on these identities (Hennessey 2000, 110). As such, they render invisible the relationship between identity and capitalist exploitation, refusing to address the ways in which these identities are entangled in changes in capitalist consumption and growth in the middle class (Hennessey 2000, 66). Thus, Hollywood believes for us in order to sell us back a commodified version of the revolution, so that we can feel better about supporting social change and bringing an end to oppression, without stopping our shopping sprees. Just wait for the next line of Mockingjay logo on all sorts of merchandise and expect the new Disney-fied Quarter Quell theme park adventure in the near future.
That neoliberal global capitalism has absorbed and coopted the major symbols and iconic figures of revolutionary theory and practice through Hollywood is nothing new. More importantly, it ends up not only rationalizing exploitation but also inadvertently erasing the name of the problem today: capitalism itself. Indeed, as Žižek claims, ideology is most effective when it conceals “the logic of the legitimation of the relations of domination” (Žižek 2012, 15; emphasis on the original). While some commentators have noted the absence of any reasonable Marxist critique of capitalism in the Hunger Games franchise, no one seems to have noticed the deliberate choice of Francis Lawrence as a director for the second installment of the film.
The same concealment operation in the second film of the franchise characterizes Lawrence’s film, I Am Legend, which substitutes the multicultural politics of identity and difference for the importance of class struggle. Nowhere in the film does Lawrence make present the absent system of neoliberal global capitalism or the ultimate capitalist fantasy of living in a world of abundant free commodities and surplus enjoyment, which for the last man on earth can indeed be considered infinite. He would have to live many more lives to be able to exhaust all these resources that sustain it (Khader 2013).
Unfortunately, in both films Lawrence naturalizes and normalizes capitalism and its social relations, by disavowing the need for recognizing the horrific dimension of the class struggle underpinning the fictional narrative world in both films. These films deny the specific conflicts that embody the capitalist conditions of its production: what the power of the hegemonic capitalist ideology does not disclose, in short, is the presence of capitalism itself.
When James Cameron’s Avatar came out, Reuters circulated a photograph of Palestinian children painted blue, brandishing arrows like the Navi tribe in that film, and wearing a kuffiyah around their waists, protesting the Israeli apartheid separation wall at Bilin. Many Mondoweiss readers on the merits and faults of such images for the Palestinian liberation struggle, but one issue remained absent in the discussion: global capitalism itself and how it delinks the commodification of such revolutionary images from the exploitation of the Palestinian struggle and identity to conceal the logic of Israel’s apartheid policies and Zionist settler-colonialism.
Carroll, Roy. “Donald Sutherland: ‘I want Hunger Games to stir up a revolution.” The Guardian Nov 19, 2013. Web.
Hennessey, Rosemary. Profit and Pleasure: Sexual Identities in late Capitalism. NY: Routledge, 2000.
Khader, Jamil. “Will the real Robert Neville please, come out? Vampirism, the Ethics of Queer Monstrosity, and Capitalism in Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend.” The Journal of Homosexuality 6.4 (2013): 532-557.
“Who Would Teargas Avatar?” Mondoweiss. Feb 12, 2010.
Žižek, Slavoj, ed. Mapping Ideology. 1994. London: Verso, 2012.
- – -. The Plague of Fantasies. London: Verso, 1997.