The White Mythology of 300

I am very very conflicted over the film 300. As a comic book geek, who has lost the direct passion for comics, but is still infected with heavy nostalgia and fidelity for comics, this film looks awesome!
But as a Ethnic Studies scholar and someone who has learned the importance of being vigilante to the ways that race, racialization and racism play out at multiple levels at every moment, this movie both scared the crap out of me, and really pissed me off.

When I watched Oliver Stone’s film Alexander last year, I enjoyed some parts of it, but one part in particular struck me. During the philosophical discussions with a young Alexander and an aging Aristotle, the glories of Greek civilization are laid out for all to see and learn, and for the viewing audience of today, to make continuity to the present. After watching this section, my reading of the film, which is also my reading for 300 can be encapsulated in two words, white mythology. Or the development of truth claims, which create a circular self-aggrandizing relationship between an infinite number of historical moments and a particular version of the present, meant to both explain the whiteness of the present, and infuse that newly whitened present with an authority, eternal viability, and the ability to act as the edge of History.

To paraphrase the Celion Dion song, white mythology is a collection of songs which are odes to why this whiteness, this white moment is the best evolutionary creation, and furthermore why this whiteness should go on.

Manifest Destiny is the most well known and established instance of this in the United States, but we can literally see it everywhere. Manifest Destiny did not come into being with the stroke of a pen, or the simple publishing of a book. It came from a number of different yearnings for power, wealth, sovereignty, exceptionalism. The nation, as an organism is always trapped in a contradiction. It is a consistently modern thing, captivated by a progressive, moral soul, which constantly pushes it forward in time. Yet at the same time, it cannot simply celebrate this youth, its power and ability to capture the future and to embody the apex of the present depends upon a tenuous genealogy, a skeletal chronology, through which that same good national soul has been sighted repeatedly, unfolded and revealed occasionally, and manifested proudly in this moment!

For Manifest Destiny, the progressive power and authority of the United States was traced back into different pockets of white mythology, and that collection of different ancient and modern European cultural developments, victories and evolutionarily divine mandates, was meant to create a spirit of blinding obvious, destiny and power!

To see a very simple way how this works, how one accumulates this sort of force, how you become simply a wave which has built in intensity from the millions of waves that have pushed you into existence, with a particular mandate, read the following quote from a 19th century US Senator. Writing in an 1895 article titled “Our Blundering Foreign Policy” Henry Cabot Lodge stated about the United States and its need to embody this imperialist and ferocious destiny which is so so manifest, “We have a record of conquest, colonization and expansion unequalled by any people in the Nineteenth Century. We are not about to be curbed now.”

Films such as Alexander and 300 are glorified instances of white mythology because of the way they provide images and can give life to empty and hollow claims of the eternal and far reaching greatness of the “Western” and “white” civilization. They make history real not only in the sense of “real in that time” but more so “real in this time.” In the ways that history can never remains in the pages that it is confined to by deaths and dates, the traces of any film touch us today, and if we are not careful can find ways of making concrete and natural the most grotesque, in this instance, racial ideologies.

Everyone in life is on a trip to search for an absent and never fully realized origin. Although you may have come from a family, a nation, a house, a school, etc, pieces of you always seem to stretch into realms and world beyond what seems possible and what can be readily explained. Thus all of life is about filling in the spaces for our always absent origins and sources. This doesn’t mean that what we fill in those spaces has no meaning, but only that the meaning they have is always open, is subject to change, contestation, rejection.

In the explanation for the present moment, for the way things are now, there are a multitude of potential answers. In the case of the United States, “western” and European societies, which seem to hold privileged positions in the running of the world, or the foundation for the prevailing global frameworks (human rights, Washington Consensus, democracy) life seems to be a dangerous game in which one must constantly either search for ways in which one is simply not complicit with the violence and inequalities either in their societies or around the world, or find reasons for which their exceptional and privileged positions are correct, just and appropriate.

So for instance, the claim made by both Republicans and Democrats that it is in the American character to spread democracy to the world, and that we are a just and moral civilization who has the monopoly on this particular “universal” commodity, finds consistency, solvency and safety, yes, in a text such as Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, but more so, and on a wider and more dangerous scale, a films like Alexander and 300.

In the conflicts in these films which naturally curiously echo the conflicts of today, the most base fears in a First World subject, or a middle class subject come to life. In both of these positions, that subject possesses something special which is always about to be lost and always the envy of all others. This feeling animates the self-aggrandizement of all First World subjects, propping up the stupid notion that people from around the world want to come to their country simply because its awesome or opportunity is only found there. This discourse of course completely ignores the realities of the world, most prominently their country’s complicity, either through colonialism, war, or economic mercantilism which ravages foreign economies and displaces populations.

So this incredible thing which the First World subject possesses is so awesome and powerful that everything either wants it or wants to destroy it. This is one of the reasons that Bush’s rhetoric after 9/11 had so much power. He didn’t only promise everyone war and violence against those who had toppled the World Trade Center. He also informed everyone as to why these attacks had taken place. But because of the way his rationalization touched this incredible national thing, it didn’t so much as inform them, but remind them about its existence, its potency, power and the fact that it is always under threat. Bush reminded everyone that these attackers hate our freedoms, our ways of life. The New York Times chimed in on September 16th, 2001 that, further enhancing Bush’s point that, “the perpetrators acted out of hatred for the values cherished in the West, such as freedom, tolerance, prosperity, religious pluralism and universal suffrage.”
My point in this tangent is that in the film 300 in particular, the Spartans are embattled, surrounded on all sides by a dark, angry, blood thirsty horde whose arrows threaten to blot out the sun. In differing ways, the Spartans wrap themselves (in very paradoxical ways) in the language of individual rights, freedom from tyranny, democracy, paladins for an endangered civilization and so on, and therefore seem like ideal positions of identification for your average First World subject who is looking for random, colorful, hi-tech and bloody ways in which his persistent fear of foreigners and ludicrous belief in his nation’s sublime power can make some sense. To quote the actor Gerard Butler who plays King of the Spartans Leonidas in the film, “I felt like it was my destiny to play Leonidas." In order to preserve myself, and to assure myself that I am indeed the recipient of a great legacy of democracy spreading, I feel that am destined too, to defend democracy and freedom, these precious national things, from the black, savage hordes, or in this case, the Middle East.

I think I’m done with this post for today, but I have plenty more to say. From what I have been reading and hearing about the film in the news, internet and just random conversations, this film is very frightening, precisely because it an apolitical and therefore ideal piece of white mythology. This characteristic making it perfect for those who wish to argue that civilizations around the world are clashing.


AradhanaD said…
I came here via the blog and the bullet. I wonder what you think about my entry on this here:

There is also a petitition circulating on the internet to ban the movie as it is anti-iran propoganda...

Let me know what you think.
Anonymous said…
lanya miget, you never fail to include anything about politics and sovereignty in your post. Even if it's the most mundane subjects, such as movies and the asian chick as your profile pictures
John said…
Hi, Im from Melbourne. I came across your marvellous blog via a link.
Yes we whitey's are so convinced that we are "god"s gift to the planet. When I grew up (Im 57)I never ever saw or read anything wherin a non-white person was served by a whitey----it was the "natural" order of things for us to be so served and for the "coloured" people to do all the work. And Tarzan was out there in the jungle "saving" the heathens from themselves---funny how he was always clean shaven and had no hair on his chest or under his arms.
I thought you might like these related essays on politics, culture and religion.
Plus something completely different re Lacan, Derrida, Culture etc.

Also one of my favourite "leftish" blogs.
Anonymous said…
Just discovered your blog by accident.
Great article - I wonder how many other such reads on the same topic could be unearthed.
Saieef ahmdya said…
So good topic really i like any post talking about Ancient Greece but i want to say thing to u Ancient Greece not that only ... you can see in Ancient Greece AncientGreece.Me and more , you shall search in Google and Wikipedia about that .... thanks a gain ,,,

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