A Brief Remark on Zero Dark Thirty

Liberalism has often been criticized (rightly, in my opinion) for for its unwavering emphasis upon means rather than ends, procedures rather than goals. As Carl Freedman puts it, in his great account of Richard Nixon:

Liberalism begins by abjuring positive social policy in favor of a formal proceduralism, pragmatically trusting that the application of a certain set of rules will “work” in the sense of yielding the fairest attainable results. But such results are absolutely precluded by the initial liberal move of waiving the question of justice: for justice is a social goal with positive, determinate content…

In other words, liberal proceduralism is concerned that actions must be conducted “fairly,” and not at all concerned with the question of whether the outcome of the action is actually fair. If fairness or justice is a Kantian regulative ideal, then 20th and 21st century liberalism is obsessed with the “regulative” aspect in and of itself, to the point of entirely forgetting the “ideal” which is what really matters.

Liberal proceduralism is one aspect of the “instrumental reason” whose annihilation of true rationality Horkheimer and Adorno warned us of two thirds of a century ago. And if anything, this proceduralism has become even more pronounced today than it was in the mid-20th-century. It has become the nearly unquestioned basis of all aspects of government and social life. Everything from the “reforms” that are currently decimating the US educational system, to the way that American foreign and military policy is conducted, adheres to a strictly procedural logic. (In a full social analysis, we would have to say that there is in fact an end in sight: the further accumulation of capital by the tiny minority that already “owns” it, and the exacerbated dispossession of the “99%” in the US itself, not to mention the much more severely disadvantaged global poor. But of course, this “end” is not publically avowable. And as Marx long ago pointed out, the “end” of capital accumulation isn’t really an end or an aim, since it has no goal in view aside from its continuing exacerbated expansion. On the largest scale, capitalism is itself a “liberal” process of proceduralism without any additional or external aim).

I think that it is because we live in such an overwhelmingly “proceduralist” society that the genre of the *procedural* has become so ubiquitous in television and film. This genre used to be known as the “police procedural,” exemplified today by (for example) the ever-popular CSI group of TV shows. But procedurals have also become the staple genre for some of our most interesting film directors. Thus Olivier Assayas gives us a procedural of terrorism (Carlos), and David Fincher gives us procedurals of detective work beyond the police department (Zodiac) and of corporate strategy in the age of the Internet (The Social Network).

And this, to me, is the genius of Zero Dark Thirty. When I wrote before about Kathryn Bigelow, I noted that her characteristic techinque as a director is to immerse herself, and us, in the element, or environment, in which the story takes place (night in Near Dark; the seashore and the waves in Point Break; the realm of inner-psychic-life-as-virtual-reality in Strange Days; and the desert in The Hurt Locker). I also noted that The Hurt Locker marked her move to the genre of the procedural, in order to convey this elemental reality (which seems not to be “political” only because it is, in fact,the necessary precondition and container of the political).

Well, perhaps this is because I am such an unregenerate auteurist, but I find the same principles at work in Zero Dark Thirty as well.

Zero Dark Thirty is the ne plus ultra of proceduralism, its ultimate expansion and reductio ad absurdum. It’s all about the well-nigh interminable process of searching for, and then eliminating, Osama Bin Laden. The premise and initial impetus of this process is of course the mythological demonization of Bin Laden, as the ultimate culprit responsible for Nine Eleven. But in the relentless proceduralism that the film presents to us, this goal or rationale is abraded away. The torture which the film has become controversial for depicting is of course part of this. But so is the process of painstakingly correlating irrelevant information, the accidental discovery of leads in years-old records, the repetitive tracking of the vehicle of the suspected courier, the endless bureaucratic meetings at which officials seek to decide if the information is valid and what should be done about it, and above all the military operation in the last thirty minutes of the film (has military action ever been depicted in the movies with such relentless a focus on operational techniques, in a manner that is utterly devoid alike of the horror of war and of the glory and heroism that are so often invoked to justify it?). The goal has been so absorbed into procedural routine that the ostensible climax of the film, the actual killing of Bin Laden, occurs offscreen; and we barely even get a glimpse of the corpse, zipped as it is into a body bag, which is to say treated entirely (and literally) according to Standard Operating Procedure.

The film makes a sort of feint by implying that its real subject is the passion of its protagonist Maya (Jessica Chastain), who continues to pursue the search for Osama when everyone else has given up on it. But her obsession is itself entirely contained within, and articulated by, the proceduralism which is her job as a CIA analyst, and which seems to be the only world she knows. Every potentially dramatic action in which she finds herself (bombings and armed ambushes included) is drained of drama, and subsumed within proceduralist routine. Every affect, and every reason for doing what one does, is sucked into a black hole. This is why Maya is so emptied out at the end of the film.

We are immersed into an overwhelming environment in Zero Dark Thirty, just as we are in all of Bigelow’s films. But in this case, the environment is the numbingly anonymous one of Big Data, of the numbingly repetitious accumulation of “information” (whether by torture, surveillance, physical search, or collation of records), and of instantaneity (the annihilation of duration) mediated through video screens and telecommunications technologies.

As I was watching Zero Dark Thirty, I found the relentlessness with which all this was depicted almost unbearably intense. I’ve never seen (or heard) so powerful a depiction (or better, I should say,so powerful an enactment) of entropic dissolution and decay. All meaning, and all feeling, was draining away before my eyes and ears, without even the prospect of any sort of negative finality or conclusion. I realize that this weird inverted intensity won’t appeal to everyone; it’s the reason, I think, that many people I know simply found the movie tedious and boring. (But such differences of response are of course, as Kant knew, beyond argument).

In any case, Zero Dark Thirty embodies the truth of liberal proceduralism as an organizing principle of all governmentality and all social life today. Embodying and testifying to a truth in this manner is not the same as offering a “critique.” In this sense, it is perfectly true that the movie does not offer any critique of our government’s systematic use of torture. It is also perfectly true, at least in a literal and banal sense, that (as the filmmakers have themselves defensively claimed) the movie doesn’t “endorse” torture either. But I think that to have an argument on this level is to miss the point. Critique is important, but it isn’t everything. It might well be argued that, at this late date, even the most accurate critique doesn’t accomplish very much; it is itself too much part of an all-too-predictable procedure. Embodying the truth of a situation, as I think Zero Dark Thirty does, has important aesthetic and political consequences, more important perhaps than those that come from making an accurate and moral judgment. Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t show us a way out from the nightmare of liberal proceduralism, but it makes this nightmare visible at a time when its sheer ubiquity might otherwise leave us to take it for granted and thereby ignore it.