Thursday, September 29, 2005

Deadwood and Ethics beyond Ethics

I just finished watching the entire first season of the HBO series Deadwood. It was an interesting show, at first I saw it as an annoying exploration into the making of whiteness in America (cowboys, racism against Chinese people, erasing and entraping of Native Americans, manifest destiny), just with new and improved swear words!

After finishing the first season though, and seeing in particular the last episode I understood why people might be attracted to the characters and the story. Other then the nationalist masturbatory potential (oh those scenes of rugged mythical Americaness! So viral! So powerful!), in characters such as Seth Bullock but more so Al Swearengen you see examples of ethics beyond ethics. Ethical stances which don't quite conform to what we perceive to be a possible or desirable act from that character's perspective, yet that we can secretly or discreetly admire because of their commitment to something beyond what we see and note. An ethical commitment beyond ethics.

In samurai epics such as Lone Wolf and Cub these acts are far too common. The Bushido code seems to be built upon an explicit incomprehension. In Story #108 of Lone Wolf and Cub for example, the leader of the Yagyu, Retsudo in his disdainful discussion with Kaii about the difference between a non-samurai and samurai he creates clear distinctions as to those who have access to this way of life/epistemology around familiarity with death and the worthiness of being killed by a samurai's sword.

To any viewer/reader, but the Western reader in particular these demarcations echant us, because of their commitment just beyond what we would or can imagine. One can speak the words, but the commitment lies just beyond us, because we cannot imagine ourselves committing the same act or occupying the same stubborn stance, except through some sort of strict identification (as exemplified by statements such as "well, if I was in that situation, I guess I would have done the same.)

On a related point, it might be productive to disucss here the way Americans discuss Kamikazee pilots and other ethnically marked suicide bombers. If they don't taste any sublime in their acts, then they fixate on how wasteful or insane the acts are. I remember having similar leanings until I saw the movie Air Force One. In the film's second to the last climax, during a fight with "rogue" Russian fighters, one American pilot flies into the path of a missile which is aimed at the president's airplane sacrificing himself. The act was far different then the usual, bodyguard throwing themselves in front of their client, because the body flying through the sky always has an element of chance to it. Someone hurtling through the air, usually their focus is to push the person out of harms way, but in the process get hit. And this pilot's act was different then the mini-sub's decoy move in The Hunt for Red October, which fooled the torpedo into hitting the sub that fired it. In this scene, a pilot deliberately flew into a missile in order to have it hit him instead of the president.

Needless to say, this admirable sacrifice unsettled me because of the way I was expected to infuse this death with incredible value. Yet at the same time I was expected to not infuse the deaths of kamikazee pilots or suicide bombers with that same value. Talk about intersections of race, nation and reason.

Returning to my initial point, Seth Bullock from Deadwood might be instructive. This character is interesting because of the intersections that take place in him recognizing himself as the sheriff of the town. In the first season's last episode, the course of the day's events, as well as other characters with Bullock make it seem inevitable that he become sheriff. Given the positioning of his character as "good" via ethically challenged manipulators like Cy Tolliver and Al Swearengen, this would seem to be obvious. Who else could be sheriff in this town?

But the setting up of this chosing of the sheriff is interesting. At the episode's beginning, there is no sheriff, because the business interests in the town don't want one interferring needlessly in their affairs. When one is chosen its obvious that he would be the "ideal" candidate, since he is the kind of operator who wouldn't interfere with anyone's business and can easily be bought by any side. But no one really stands behind Con Stapleton during his short tenure as sheriff.

Instead, characters continually recognize Bullock as the ideal candidate. One could guess this because of him being marked as one of the "good" characters in the storyline. But as even those interests in the town who didn't want a sheriff in the first place recognize Bullock as an ideal choice we see that this isn't as simple as goodness or ethics. It is after beating Alma's father (who wants to cheat his daughter out of her gold claim) nearly to death that we see why he is seen as an ideal. It is this explosion of ethical violence that marks him the ideal agent of the law. The ideal person for its defense and enaction cannot be the spineless sheriff Stapleton. Because what Stapleton lacks is the essence summed up in "the force of law," the excessive aspect of the laws enacting or existence which is always necessarily unaccounted for/repressed, yet always very very present. The force of the law refers to the someplace outside of the current order to which that act reaches which both founds and changes the law at the same time.

This isn't to say that Bullock's competition isn't violent, he kills a Chinese worker in the village that same day. But rather than cold and calculating, Bullock's beating of Alma's father represents that excessive, obscene aspect of the law which must be present for us to see it as law, yet at the same time always disavowed in a way. As evidenced in Kafka's The Trial, rather then the law being a tasteless, banal and methodical thing, it is very much "penetrated" with perverse obscene enjoyment (portrayed by the pornography in the court and the wild laughter that Josef K. encounters there when he pleads his case).

Another interesting portrayal is the character of Al Swearengen. Like so many overbearing, powerful and obviously "bad" characters he is enchanting because there is something in him that is ethical beyond what we can see or readily understand. Poplar culture is full of these characters, who force an identification which we often later feel ashamed for (rooting for the "bad guy.") These characters are enchanting because of their acceptance and recognition of something in themselves, which becomes more important then salvation or redepmtion. The ones who somehow stay true to something in them, which comes at the cost of their very lives.

A key point in making this clear for Swearengen is his mercy killing of the town priest who has long been suffering from unknown illnesses. Unlike most narratives where something such as this would be set up, where for example Swearengen would relate to someone a story from his childhood ("my daddy was a priest") which would easily explain this act, it instead remains caused and informed by something just beyond our view. Something which Swearengen stays committed too, despite the limitations and expectations of our gaze.

Lastly, there is something else to be noted in the ethics of these characters. Something strangely Levinasian. Seeing in Samurai Champloo, Jin and Mugen save each other, because their deaths belong to each other. Seeing Ogami Itto in Lone Wolf and Cub yell out "I take (claim) your life" before he kills his enemy. Or even "bad guys" and serial killers (such as in Oldboy) who keep alive their enemies or prey so that they may be killed by only themselves and no one else. There is something to be said of these characters and their feelings of responsibility towards those around them. I created you, I hate you, I desire you, therefore you're life and your death belongs to me.

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