Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The National Postman

I have a weird fascination with movies that people generally don't like. I've never found anyone else for example who enjoyed the film The Postman directed by Kevin Costner from the book by David Brin. In the spectrum of what makes a movie enjoyable or likeable a film like The Postman, seems to fall inbetween the crack of everything. You can like movies because it connects with something in you, because everyone else likes it, because so many people say it is great. You can hate it because it offends you, bores you, is just plan stupid or terrible. Interestingly enough when something reaches the point where its meaning is too assured, that is precisely when your response may end up on the opposite end of the spectrum. If a movie is too poorly put together, it can become charming, unique, silly, bad in a good way, etc.

The Postman, which tells the story of how certain symbols of daily modern life, such as mail, play an inspiring role in rebuilding communities after the world as we know it comes to an end. In a world that has been destroyed by war and terrible weapons, Kevin Costner pretends to be a postman of a restored United States government in order to trick villagers into giving him food. His ruse however inspires people who have been beaten down and gutted by the cruelty of post-apocalyptic life into believing in the possibility of their previous sense of normalcy returning. The hope the return of postal service represents helps people that their world can change and soon the fiction that the Postman created becomes a reality.

The movie is filled with jingoism and patriotism and at times it becomes far too much. In the final fight of the film Kevin Costner vanquishes his opponent after he fills himself with zeal by crying out his devotion for the United States of America. Symbols such as the Federal Government and the American flag that have little meaning in the slow death the world seems to be stricken with taken on new and old meanings.

The Postman using his inner patriotic power to defeat the villain of the film is silly but also telling in terms of the dynamics involved. The lack of governments, the lack of countries, the lack of even the ability to invoke humanity as moving forward in time means that people live without grand narratives. Even Mother Nature is antagonistic and ti anggokuyon as it has been poisoned and scarred by human idiocy and greed. This means there is no Big Other out there to collect the errant and stray meaning of existence. The previously mentioned things all operated as screens, "the nation" or "humanity" or "the world" through which so many of the things that you didn't want to be bothered to think or worry about could be dealt with.

We all live like this on a daily basis. A belief in progress will enable you to see the world as always moving forward and allowing you to cope with what you see around you that might dramatically counter this point. A belief in your government allows you to abdicate responsibility over so many things in your life that you otherwise feel responsible for taking care of yourself. A believe in your "nation" means that no matter what your nation does, you will always have easy to access apologia and excuse that you can use to protect the reputation of your country.

These grand narratives are out there and they provide people with a sense of security and comfort, so long as you don't think about them too much. The less you think about your government, about humanity, about your nation, about religion, about nature, the easier it is to persist in a simple and clueless way. Those grand narratives seem impossible to challenge or think around so long as they aren't thought about. But if you dare to interrogate them and people do in small and large ways constantly, you will see, taste and feel their fragility easily.

People will always feel conflicted about this relationship. It is on the one hand a comforting default connection. These narratives allow you to think less about many events around you and give you the opportunity to focus on yourself and your immediate identity. On the other hand people will always find ways to argue they are independent, they are alterity in the flesh. They aren't the sum of the things they take for granted, they are the choices they make that define them against others who float blindly along.

But the lure of the grand all-seeing power of the Other than knows is too strong, people will find their ways back to it. They will find their ways back into believing, accepting, deceiving, or whatever it takes to find an invisible groove within that massive beast of meaning. It is just too tempting to have something or someone out there upon whom you can lay so many of the questions of existence or the impossible to quantify responsibilities of existence.

When I was in graduate school one debate that stayed with us students constantly was what to do with the nation? Nationalism promised much and had delivered little for those seeking justice or decolonization. Ethnic groups that bought into nationalism, whether as minorities or as decolonized subjects often times ended up becoming mirror versions of the colonizers and slave masters who had once oppressed them. Nationalism with its emphasis on forgetting the sins of the past and dazzling its members with promises of future fortunes did not seem to break the cycle of human violence or of colonialism, it seemed to just continue it with different colored spokes.

Nationalism is an elixir that is so difficult to resist. As a narrative, a meaning generating organism it is comforting and inspiring. It represents a repository of past glories and dreams future conquests. What the film The Postman shows is the ways in which people can feel connected and imagine themselves in some solidarity even if they don't know each other and never meet each other. Every large collective is intriguing and complicated in its own way, but all requires mechanisms through which people can feel connected and possibly be connected. There have to be means of traversing distances, whether humans bodies or human thoughts. People have to feel a latent network out there that gives them the skeletal spiritual tough of community. The larger the distances the greater the empty networks of possible links and potential ties that have to be in place.

In the film the denizens of the post-apocalpyse don't see the nation as being possible or even that desirable as they eek out their existence, because the structures such as media, government, communication that existence before don't give you the everyday ability to imagine that someone on the other side of the land mass has the same values as you, or watches the same TV shows you do or is headed in the same destined direction you and the nation are. The revival of mail service and even the possibility of mail service reignites that feeling of possibility for a larger community. This is what makes it a film ideal for the mechanics of nationalism. It shows very well, in sometimes clunky ways what theorists of nationalism talk about in terms of how these communities are formed and how they are maintained.

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