Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The triumphant return of the Paranoid Style: the case of 24

I must admit to being a fan of the television series 24, but also to being a bit ambivalent about that. I imagine I don’t need to elaborate too much on the reasons for that ambivalence: the show’s explicit endorsement of torture as a necessary interrogation tool and its antipathy to issues of civil rights, to say nothing of the way in which Jack Bauer has become something of a folk hero for the pro-Patriot Act right, all sit uneasily with me. In my mind I can reconcile the show’s unpalatable politics with the pleasure of watching a fast-paced, exciting action-based drama for the simple reason that the series’ plots are so ludicrous that they are effectively pure fantasy. And with each season, the show ratchets up the absurdity to the point where you wonder what they’ll do next season to top it. (In the words of Stephen Colbert, they “crank up the crazy and rip off the knob”).

The Ticking Time Bomb

That is however a rather big cop-out on my part. The particular fantasy being peddled by 24—the “ticking time bomb” scenario, and the correlating need on the part of federal agencies to be able to act as they see fit irrespective of law and individual rights—is essentially a fallacy, and has been debunked in a variety of forums. That has done nothing however to mitigate its power as both a narrative hook and a point of paranoid fascination. Series like 24 normalize a particular conception of threat and the strategies to counter that threat. The relationship to reality is more or less irrelevant.

The “ticking time bomb” scenario was first used, for all intents and purposes, in the 1963 novel Les Centurions by Jean Lartéguy. Set during the Algerian war, the novel follows its protagonist’s desperate attempt to find and disarm bombs laid all over the city by Algerian terrorists. The initial discovery of the plot, incidentally, comes when the hero beats the fact out of an Algerian woman.

Significantly, the novel is generally credited with salving French liberals’ discomfiture at the brutal treatment of Algerians—depicting them as brutes who only understood the language of violence. Sound familiar? I would hope so, considering that 24 has accomplished something remarkably similar, insofar as the show’s various life-and-death scenarios have been considered seriously as hypotheticals in a number of high-level debates over the validity and efficacy of torture. Antonin Scalia in particular is fond of invoking Jack Bauer. (More encouragingly, a group of army officers met with the producers of 24, asking them to please stop, because both academy graduates and new soldiers in the field were increasingly taking their leads from the show).

The ticking time bomb may have originated in France’s Algerian quagmire (there’s something to taunt Republicans with—Jack Bauer was invented by the French!), it finds fecund soil in the American imagination at least in part because of the obsession with speed and expedience that marked the Cold War. Most significantly, it is an outgrowth of a discourse of “fast-response” scenarios that Elaine Scarry critiques in her essay “Citizenship In Emergency.” Scarry observes that:

“Speed” has occupied the foreground not only of our descriptive statements about our national defense but also our normative statements. Our military arrangements for defending the country have often been criticized for moving increasingly outside the citizenry’s control.

This preoccupation with speedy response has led to a situation in which “The constitutional requirement for a Congressional declaration of war has not been used for any war since World War II”; speed, she continues, has continually been cited as a counter-argument to objections about weapons policy and war-making practices sliding increasingly beyond the scope of democratic and legislative oversight.

Scarry’s larger argument—that for all the military’s preoccupation with fast-response, the only effective defense mounted against the attacks on September 11th was the democratic consensus for action reached by the passengers of United 93—is at least partially beside the point I am trying to make here. It does however highlight a broader cultural discourse that has come, in spite of evidence to the contrary, to privilege the “whatever-it-takes” attitude embodied by Jack Bauer and 24.

Conspiracy’s Bait-and-Switch

My interest here today is not so much to debunk the ticking-time-bomb scenario as to highlight the way in which 24 employs it in relation to what we’re calling the paranoid style—and how the show has really come to be almost a parody of the classic conspiracy narrative.

This point occurred to me last night at the end of the most recent episode, which ended with one of the series’ patented cliffhangers (which in the real-time universe of 24 meant that it occurred at one minute to the hour—you’d think that after six and three quarters seasons, the Jack and company would be getting squirrelly as a matter of course at the top of the hour). The plot twist of last night’s episode (spoilers to follow in the course of this post, if you haven’t seen the episode yet) was typical of how 24 rolls. Which is to say, it brought to satisfying conclusion one storyline, only to raise the stakes and reveal that there’s another, probably larger and more malevolent, conspiracy at work.

This is how 24 has developed into the acme of the conspiracy narrative. Each season unfolds as a series of nested conspiracies, like Russian dolls, or ever-widening concentric circles. And that seeming contradiction of those analogies—one getting smaller and more central, the other broadening out in larger and larger and more all-encompassing—is one of the structural paradoxes of conspiracy. It is both a matter of getting to the “center” of the plot, finding the key players and the secret(s) at the heart of the matter; and of discovering the larger shape of the sprawling yet invisible network of power and control.

To use this season thus far to explain: we began with an conspiracy against the U.S. by agents of the fictional African country Sangala, who have acquired a device that lets them hack into, well, everything on a federal grid—power stations, air traffic control, etc.—in retaliation for the President’s plan to invade Sangala and intervene in an ongoing genocide. It turns out the Sangalans have all sorts of people in the U.S. government in their pockets, and what’s worse, the formerly-thought-to-be-dead Tony Almeida (a former associate of Bauer’s, for those who don’t watch the show) turns out to be alive and has gone over to the dark side, working for the Sangalans. But then, we discover, this is merely a front: though he has been since rumours of his death been doing some nasty stuff as a mercenary, Tony has in fact been working undercover with other former colleagues of Jack’s from the (now defunct) Counter-Terrorism unit (CTU). Of course, Jack now goes rogue (which is something he has to do about once a season) in order to assist Tony and company. Together, they recover the hacking device and foil the plot to hold the country for ransom.

So ends conspiracy the first. But even as that one comes to a conclusion, Tony warns Jack of something else about to go down. What it is, he doesn’t know, but we find out soon enough: a group of Sangalans in the U.S., led by their president Juma, infiltrate the White House with the assistance of their agents and take the President hostage. Thanks however to Jack’s derring-do and the sacrifice of one of the CTU people, the Sangalans are defeated, bringing to a close conspiracy the second.

Shift to a Blackwater-style military contractor called Starkwood, and its CEO Jonas Hodges (played by a wonderfully scenery-chewing Jon Voight). It turns out that the Sangalan conspiracy was facilitated by Starkwood in exchange for allowing them to test a biological WMD on President Juma’s enemies in Sangala. The bio-weapon is now in the U.S. and Hodges proceeds to threaten the U.S. President with an attack on America’s cities. His demand is a “seat at the table,” and a free hand in shaping American military policy. However, once again the conspiracy is thwarted—this time by Tony Almeida, who manages to destroy the missiles armed with the bioweapon.

So much for conspiracy the third. But when the President has Hodges arrested, he warns her that she ain’t seen nothing yet—he was just the tip of the iceberg. And sure enough, a Starkwood employee escapes with a tank of the bio-weapon. He is cornered by Almeida and an FBI agent but manages to wound the agent. At which point, Tony Almeida finishes off the G-man, and reveals that he is in league with Mr. Starkwood. Ladies and gentlemen: I give you conspiracy the fourth.

Now on one hand, this is exactly the kind of potboiler plot twist that animates 24, in conjunction with the relentless ticking of the clock. Unless I miss my guess however, we will see over the next few episodes that Tony Almeida has been playing everyone from the start, in the service of an all-encompassing conspiracy that effectively contains all the others. The bait-and-switch that 24 constantly engages in, the false resolutions followed by the ramping up of the action and the stakes, not only follows the standard conspiracy narrative format but cranks it up to eleven (and breaks off the knob). It is, indeed, akin to the way The X-Files worked: each season ended with the promise of revelation, of finally finding the “truth” that was out there … and inevitably the next season pulled the rug out, deferring endlessly the promise of discovery.

It is this last element of “deferral” that most specifically differentiates conspiracy narratives from mystery or detective fiction, for the latter—while often engaged in investigating conspiracies of various sorts—does so in a limited fashion that ends with the detective in the study with all of the suspects, reassembling for everyone the disparate and confusing welter of clues into a coherent narrative. Well, OK—it doesn’t always take place in the study, but you catch my meaning. The point is that everything is contained. The detective (or agent, operative, or cop) scores an epistemological victory.

Conspiracy narratives however articulate a deep suspicion of the possibilities for such a victory, while at the same time evoking the desire for it. It is for this reason (as I have argued elsewhere) that conspiracy has had such currency in the postmodern moment. On one hand, the persistent deferral of revelation, which expresses in part a deep-seated suspicion of the concept of capital-T Truth, parallels what Jean-Francois Lyotard characterized as postmodernism’s rejection of “grand narratives.” But while Lyotard more or less argued that this rejection is essentially an emancipatory one (freeing us from the despotism of monolithic discourse), postmodern narratives have also frequently expressed uneasiness with the dissolution of formerly certain truths and what George Steiner famously called “nostalgia for the absolute.”

Hence, conspiracy is at its core a necessarily paradoxical motif, offering the comfort of revelation but too shot through with fundamental suspicion of its truth-value (the two mantras of The X-Files exemplify this contradiction: “The truth is out there” on one hand, but we are also enjoined to “Trust no one”—which effectively negates the possibility of reaching a stable truth). In this regard, 24 is at once the acme of the conspiracy narrative, and its radical simplification. Whatever issues of abuse of power, of the psychological toll torturing takes on Jack, or any other mitigating elements, 24 ultimately lacks the kind of ambivalence that marks the balance of conspiracy narratives. This lack proceeds principally from the series’ profoundly conservative nature, with its moral absolutes, the starkness of its black-and-white choices, the villainy of the bad guys, its disdain for liberal waffling, and its celebration of the exercise of government power.


Adam Riggio said...

Looks like a pretty good draft article, Chris. The two sections on the ticking bomb and the conspiracy shells could use some tighter connection, probably by elaborating what your concept of the paranoid style is. Or else you could get two essays out of it and start making a reputation as a 24 scholar.

The politics of our profession drives me up the wall sometimes.

Chris in NF said...

Hahaha! Too true, too true ... this is all just me thinking out loud right now. I'm making a concerted effort to revisit the thesis (which was on conspiracy) this summer, so these entries are dipping the toe back into the water after a few years away ...

Thanks for the input.

Danika Barker said...

Well blogged, sir. Well blogged. I particularly enjoyed reading the phrase "how 24 rolls" in a rather academic piece of writing.

However outrageous the plots of 24 may be, I think the show presents an interesting argument about how far we as a society are willing to bend our collective concept of justice.

On an only slightly related note, do you ever wonder if someone's done a mash-up that samples Jack saying "you're running out of time"and Tony saying "Yeah"?