Thursday, November 29, 2012

Thunderball


I've been struggling to write this review of Thunderball this past week — not because I've been too busy with school, but because I'm hesitant on how to crack the particular angle at which I want to approach the text. I've recently completed a class on Toni Morrison; the most valuable element of the class for me was the introduction of critical race theory into critical tool box. Previously, as my readers have come to notice, I've mobilized a mixture of traditional literary close-reading techniques with more Marxist terminology, with a dash of Foucault here and there. Critical race theory has helped structure and mobilize my chaotic and unformed thoughts about my orientation towards race. I'm white, male, middle-class, and straight; I couldn't be any more privileged. My awareness of the intrinsic inequality beating at the heart of the world has been awakened and developed these past few years and critical race theory, along with feminism, has helped me articulate these feelings. As Allan G. Johnson writes in his book, Privilege, Power, and Difference, "to justify such direct forms of imperialism and oppression [of slavery/capitalism], whites developed the idea of whiteness to define a privileged social category elevated above everyone who wasn't included in it" (49). Imperialism, capitalism, and power are all inextricably linked with James Bond — not just in figurative ways but in literal ways as well.

The more I'm educated on my own position within a dynamic of power vis-à-vis race, gender and class, the more I'm problematizing hitherto banal elements of my cultural loves. Namely, James Bond. After seeing Skyfall recently, I was struck by the problematic aspects of the narrative. The list is long: Moneypenny's desire to be a secretary and not a field agent, the elegiac tone for the golden days of the British Empire, the gay panic of Javier Bardem's character, even the misdirection of the male gaze upon the queer figure of Daniel Craig. There's even an elegiac tone for a (seemingly) forgotten way of Scottish aristocratic life when men had servants simply for the maintenance of firearms and tunnels.

I read Thunderball because I love(d) James Bond. I hadn't any desire to revisit the films as they're uniformly terrible save for the anomalous Casino Royale. Thus, I chose one of the many Ian Fleming novels. Thunderball, I thought, would be a good place to pick up from my last Fleming novel, Moonraker, as the former is the beginning of the informal Blofeld trilogy. In addition, I remember practically nothing of the film (other than the bloated scuba scenes that stretch on for infinity). Thunderball has a long complex legal history that involves two other writers, two films, two studios, and unbearably tedious copyright issues. This is not the time and place to delve into such banalities. Instead, I want to examine why I love James Bond so much despite my acknowledgement of Bond being a rather loathsome character and concept.

Thus, I plan to examine the guilty pleasure of James Bond.

Suffice it to say that in this adventure, James Bond accidentally delays SPECTRE's masterplan when he is forced to go on holiday and ends up butting heads with a secret operative coincidentally on holiday as well. After a suitable length of time (one third of the novel!), Bond goes on assignment to the Bahamas where MI6 and the CIA believe SPECTRE has hidden two atomic bonds with which they are threatening the world.

There are a couple moments in Thunderball that are fairly exciting; they are few and far between. The more interesting stuff happening in this novel is with James Bond himself. Generally, Bond is a bit of a cipher. He's a fantasy figure upon which the audience loads themselves. Bond physically dominates an opponent with only his fists and the audience dreams of one day possibly doing the same. Bond easily seduces a woman within moments of meeting her, and the male faction of the audience hopes to achieve such a goal. I'm not sure what the female half is doing — swooning at Bond's confidence and good looks or retching with disgust at his loathsome lechery. Regardless, Bond is loaded with all sorts of fantasies from the audience. He is acting out what we wish to be.

So it's all the more interesting that the literary Bond, that accomplishes these feats within the text, also resists and textures the audience's fantasies. While he might drink like a fish and smoke like a chimney, Fleming takes time during Thunderball to remind the audience that this addictive personality has its physical costs. Bond reflects on his body being improved after a stay in the holiday resort. He understands that his behaviour is an expression of a coping mechanism, but it's mostly a transference process that has physical addictions and ailments manifesting his mental scars. Certainly not the most original of metaphors (the film Looper picks this idea up with the most tedious of results). However, it's evocative. It resists the superheroic aspects of Bond the character. Later in the book, during an aquatic fight scene, Bond suffers injuries to the head. Knowing that repeated concussions are correlated to a later history of depression and suicide, I'm struck by the fantasy of what a future, retired Bond might look like. Thunderball is at its most interesting when its main character is physically weakened or emotionally disabled — which isn't very often, and of course, this speaks to the fantasy and the privilege at the heart of James Bond.

The Dark Knight Rises picks up on this energy as well. The film wants the audience to know that Bruce Wayne is physically disabled and emotionally stunted. Of course, in a typically Hollywood (privileged) exercise, Wayne's masculinity is deeply related to his physical conditions. When confronted with two beautiful women, Wayne's confidence increases to the point where the film totally forgets that Wayne is a broken man. His recuperated libido cures his limp, in other words.

Both Batman and James Bond appear to be the apex of a matrix of domination (as per Patricia Hill Collins) or a matrix of privilege (as per Estelle Disch). Both are white, male, straight, and decidedly upper class. Bond holds the title of commander from the British Navy — arguably the most visible symbol of British imperialism. He is firmly entrenched within two branches of the English government: the military and the British Secret Service. The Wikipedia page helpfully offers a detailed biography of Bond's familial origins. Without laboriously pouring over the details, Bond comes from moneyed stock. He is, indisputably, privileged and through a matrix of domination, sustains this privilege throughout his life by systems already in place meant to reward and perpetuate Bond's privilege.

How could I possibly root for a character that exists purely as vehicle for fantasy and for the perpetuation of an intrinsically unfair system of discrimination? How could I justify my participation with this discourse? I bought the boxset of novels; I've seen the past five Bond films in the theatre; I've written copiously on the subject and I speak openly of my love for Bond. Previously, it's been unapologetic. I was fine with the cognitive dissonance of being aware of Bond's lechery and classism. I thought, simply, that the awareness of this inequality was enough to rationalize or excuse my fondness for the English spy and his adventures. I could "look past" these problems and enjoy the films on their own. My mother says I read too much into things, but as I've stated time and again, a lack of critical thinking might result in the sublimation of insidious ideology without the subject's awareness.

In other words, my constant participation with the ideologically questionable discourse of James Bond might actually be sustaining the ideology itself. After all, I'm recirculating the problem by acknowledging it without doing anything about it. I'm normalizing the process of saying "hey I know Bond is sexist" and yet purchasing the books and tickets to films. I'm engaging in interpassivity by letting other critics denounce Bond and saying, "hey it's enough that someone else is criticizing Bond — I can still see the films". The reality is "that my silence, my inaction, and especially my passive acceptance of the everyday privilege that goes along with group membership are all it takes to make me just as much a part of the problem" (Johnson 129).

Despite this, I don't think this blog is the appropriate place to exhaustively catalogue the moments of sexism and racism in the novel Thunderball. So then what is this post for? Why I am struggling to write a review of Thunderball as if it were any other text?

Previously, I've never believed in the idea of a guilty pleasure. There are multiple reasons for the existence and subsequent refutation of the guilty pleasure. Capitalism's current mode is the imperative to enjoy and self-indulge at all costs. You deserve this. You're owed this. You worked hard, so enjoy this... at all costs. But the guilt comes from the awareness that there are (many) other options that are also competing for your attention. When you pick something that you unequivocally enjoy yet acknowledge that there might be something that hypothetically more entertaining, more educational, more worthwhile, you justify your choice by repeating capitalism's mantra of "you deserve this". Which is, of course, the point. The guilt comes from the anxiety of choice, the tyranny of enjoyment, and the rapacity of capitalism. Thus, I'm positively skeptical of any such concept of guilty pleasure. If you enjoy something, just enjoy it.

Including James Bond. After all, Thunderball is fun. There are two atomic bombs, a race against the clock, soul-searching, romance, action, gadgets (a Geiger counter masquerading as a camera), barracudas, scuba fights, plane crashes, assassinations, gambling, sex, and did I mention action? Superficially, Thunderball is a fun exercise and the reader shouldn't feel guilty for seeking out pleasure in the form of literature. Thunderball, dispersed across its surface, is a flat injunction to enjoy by thrills, not by guilt.

But now I'm skeptical of even that. Especially when this type of blind indulging leads to the circulation of hegemonic concepts of whiteness, class and gender. Thus, for me, guilty pleasures take on a more menacing character. Not only because the guilty pleasure appears to be the norm in the mainstream (Honey Boo Boo, X Factor, Glee, Real Housewives, etc etc etc) but because the negative emotions of the taboo are so intimately linked with the pleasure principle. The masochism of constant indulging is pleasurable because it's taboo. Thus, the capitalistic injunction to enjoy is a complete success.

I'm no longer interested in being a passive subject, at the whim of the logic of late capitalism. But on the other hand, I'm not trying to convince anybody that "I'm one of the good ones". Just by making myself aware of the problem doesn't solve the problem. I'm not exculpating myself by writing 2,000 words about the -isms in Thunderball. Rather, this review is exploratory. It's not an argument that Bond is racist or sexist (it is undeniable that this is true) nor is it a defense of my relation to Bond and thus to privilege. Rather, it's a mea culpa.

Privilege needs the compliance of other privileged members to sustain itself (Johnson 131). It's a public that is interested in survival through the circulation amongst strangers (Warner 50). So this post is meant to introduce myself into a counterpublic that is oriented towards systemic change. Johnson writes,
change isn't simply a matter of changing people. People, of course, will have to change in order for systems to change, but the most important thing is that changing people isn't enough. The solution also has to include entire systems such as capitalism whose paths of least resistance shape how we feel, think, and behave as individuals. (141)
I want to challenge James Bond and its "obvious" legitimacy through a counterpublic of discourse. Challenging individuals creates defensiveness: my mother's supposed refutation of reading too much into things. Thus, with this blog, and Thunderball, I openly question the legitimacy of James Bond's, and subsequently, my privilege. Other people might choose to follow in my path, and in this slow and inexorable way, we might shift the paradigm of inequality.

Or, we might burn down the system of capitalism and replace it with democracy, a system where James Bond doesn't get his job in the Secret Service because of his race, his familial ties, his education, his social and cultural capital being unconsciously and invisibly manipulated like a brand.

I'm aware this is a really long review of Thunderball that isn't really a review. Instead, it's a personal exploration of the guilty pleasure, but with the guilt being my awareness of the matrix of privilege that structures not only James Bond but my very reading of it. And of course, this isn't the last time I'm going to engage with a text, a concept, an ideology in this personal way. The whole point of the project is to do so and keep exploring in order to effect some sort of change, albeit in incremental ways. Or, riot and burn it all down to start from scratch.

Works Cited

Johnson, Allan G. Power, Privilege, and Difference. London: Mayfield, 2001. Print.

Warner, Michael. "Publics and Counterpublics." Public Culture. 14.1 (2002): 49-90. Print.

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