The Maccabean Theater of Judgment

August 4, 2008

There is much talk within film scholarship about the complicit passivity of audiences… Complicit in that the audience’s eyes aligns with the camera’s gaze, and passive in that the alignment (the images on the screen) and its direction doesn’t at all care for the audience’s agency. In a sense, watching a film is like stepping into a different world -or better yet, like taking a guided tour of another world. Stanley Cavell talks about how there is a moment of awakening after a movie ends, the audiences realigns with reality. Walter Benjamin likens the aesthetic experience of film to that of architecture. While it seems that film theorists like to talk about the passive audience as if it’s a “film thing”, something similar can be said about audiences at a classical music concert (just try coughing during one!) or even at a play. The big danger with this whole logic, is when it begins assuming that observers are essentially passive. Such an assumption belies a Eurocentric tradition of a non-participatory audience, where they can aspire to be, at most, loud tomato-throwing critics without any bearing on the course of what they are observing. In all this, different traditions are obscured. A notable exception to this entire passive audience talk is “the Maccabean Theater”.

The Maccabees were a Jewish fundamentalist terrorist organization seeking to liberate the holy land from the foreign occupation of the Greek empire-state (well, the Seleucid Dynasty). They were ultimately successful and today they are mostly known for two Apocryphal books and a surprisingly effective energy sustainability policy (even though they blew all the energy saved on a party). Little is known about “the Maccabean Theater”, probably because it wasn’t an actual theater. The Maccabean Revolt was as much of a struggle against an occupying empire as it was a civil war between Jewish Nationalist and Jewish Hellenists. Violence against the Hellenists was widespread, it was so common that it gave birth to a curious tradition. Maccabean fighters began rounding up Hellenists on an elevated platform, forcing them to act out their profane gentile rituals, utter prayers, and prepare offerings. As the captive Hellenists acted as they were told to, the Maccabees would shoot arrows and throw spears at the actors. Some would even rush up to the platform, bloodthirsty sword in hand. These performance ritual were also cleansing rituals, fervent homages to the High Priest Phineas (Pinchas). They grew in popularity and became more and more elaborate. The forced reenactment of rituals evolved into the forced reenactment of histories and mythologies. Thus was the “Maccabean Theater” born, a theater of sentencing, a theater of judgment and execution.

Unlike the Roman gladiators, who were mere spectacles, the Maccabean Theater reached a brief peak before the newly liberated Jewish theocracy ushered its decline. None exemplified the apex of the Maccabean Theater better than Zedekiah the Danite. While many question the historicity of Zedekiah, reasoning that he represented a small amorphous collective movement, his projects sought to elevate the performance purges to a different level. Zedekiah often crafted his own reenactments, binary morality tales based on Jewish struggles. He created a reenactment of Book of Esther where all the captives played Haman. There’s evidence that suggests that Zedekiah even trained some captives to act, as the more capable actors were often killed last to greater general enthusiasm. Zedekiah reasoned, that if the audience were to play G-d’s will and punishment, the reenactments shouldn’t simply be some glorified shooting gallery. There must be a dynamic between the audience and the actors. So Zedekiah the Danite began toying with sympathetic gentile characters (how much longer will the divine arm let this sinner live?), but then he wanted to take a step further. He imagined an opulent Passover pageant, in which the story would change according to the death of each captive. This task was harder than imagined, since a vast array of plot permutations had to be planned and rehearsed. Zedekiah would have also required captives with significant acting experiences, capable of memorizing all possible outcomes and improvising smooth transitions, as a captive never really knew when the “Will of G-d” would smite again. The historical record doesn’t indicate whether Zedekiah’s plans ever came to fruition, although it’s said that one time, as a big finger to Hellenic culture, Zedekiah staged a minor comedy by Menander.

With the liberated Jewish state and the decline of heretical crimes, the Maccabean Theater became less about killing the actors and more about letting the better actors live. Crowds began sparing the better performers before killing off the inferior ones. Once the Romans took over, even the hands-on killing started to cease, as the Roman state usurped the state’s judicial power of execution, and death by stoning made a rollicking comeback among smaller religious courts. By then, the performance rituals forsook plots and stories, to become a kind of holiday variety show, where the most popular captive criminal act would be spared execution. Such was the case when Jesus Christ competed against Barabbas one Passover morning (a detail the gospels poorly address). By choosing a majestic silence over the actor’s craft, Jesus was promptly dispatched to the nailing yard, while the thief Barabbas was set free (according to Luke, Barabbas beat out not only Jesus but two others).

While largely forgotten, the Maccabean Theater of Judgment does have some spiritual children of sorts. The concept of torture as theater is probably more common than it’s been in awhile, thanks mostly to the Bush administration, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo Bay. It’s in no way limited to post-9/11 politics. Take, for example, the shitty Korean movie Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, or Jean-Pierre Meville’s 1969 masterpiece Army of Shadows. But I think what best inherits the tradition of the Maccabean God-audience is the current fad of judge based reality TV shows, such as American Idol, or the one with the fashion designing cooks. The audience retains a faint semblance of Maccabean empowerment. The leap from Zedekiah the Danite to American Idol is certainly long, but as any good Czarist would attest: the Jews own the media.

– s

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The Tyrant Poet and the Aesthetics of Genocide

July 23, 2008

Blazing the headlines this week: Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic was arrested in Belgrade for committing war crimes during the Bosnian War in the 90s. These crimes include killing at least 7,500 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica during an ethnic cleansing campaign in 1995, shelling Sarajevo during a 43 month siege, and using 284 U.N. peace keepers as human shields -an impressive criminal resume. Karadzic will be facing the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague. Rather than focusing on the Bosnian conflict and all the craziness in Yugoslavia (Slavoj Zizek gave a fantastically rambling lecture on the overall nature of the Yugoslavian conflict and NATO’s intervention that’s worth reading), I want to digress on the absurd circumstances of his capture and his characteristic intellectualism.

Unlike Saddam Hussein, who was sucked out of a hole in the ground, Karadzic was arrested in Belgrade, living as Dragan Dabic, a bearded alternative medicine practitioner. Rather than be a fugitive, Karadzic simply assumed a new identity, playing the character of Dragan Dabic to its logical limits. Dragan Dabic successfully ran a private alternative medicine practice, living and moving about comfortably, without security, in Belgrade.

Dr. Dabic was a proponent of “Human Quantum Energy”. In fact, he emerged as a local leader in alternative medicine, giving lectures at alternative health symposiums, making appearances on TV Shows, publishing articles in magazines… He even maintained his own personal website, which offers special trinkets, including a necklace described thusly: “This necklace is for personal protection. It is worn on the chest at the height of the fourth chakra and thymus gland, the gland of youth and immune system. It harmonizes the energies of the aura and the physical body, protects from harmful rays … If you hold it in the palm of your hand for a few minutes it causes a turbulence of energy of the chakra, heats up, and vibrates even though it is not battery powered.”… The way in which a dictator that started a campaign to “terrorize and demoralize the Bosnian Muslim and Bosnian Croat population” that left over 200,000 dead and millions displaced managed to disappear completely into the image of a friendly, well-adjusted, holistic healer that “gave lectures comparing meditation and silent techniques practiced by Orthodox monks” reaches the limit of dark comedy. It is so disturbingly absurd that the only way I can respond is by laughing.

It’s no surprise that Karadzic pulled off this kooky doctor cover; before being a murderous tyrant, Karadzic graduated from medical school and eventually became a psychiatrist. But the holistic healer guise is particularly absurd because it’s an embodiment of Karadzic’s aesthetic antithesis… Aesthetics? What Aesthetics!? Well… turns out that Karadzic is also a published poet.

Suffice to say that Karadzic wasn’t the Rimbaud type. His poems are generally very disturbing, suffused with ego-maniacal messianism, self-adoration, and destructive imagery. Take his poem titled “Sarajevo”:

I hear the misfortune threads
Turned into a beetle as if an old singer
Is crushed by the silence and turned into a voice.

The town burns like a piece of incense
In the smoke rumbles our consciousness.
Empty suits slide down the town.
Red is the stone that dies, built into a house. The Plague!

Calm. The army of armed poplar tree
Marches up the hill, within itself.
The aggressor air storms our souls
and once you are human and then you are an air creature.

I know that all of these are the preparations of the scream:
What does the black metal in the garage have for us?
Look how fear turned into a spider
Looking for the answer at his computer.

In reference to this poem and the shelling of Sarajevo, Karadzic remarks: (the translation seems to be off?)

There is a poem of mine about Sarajevo. The title was “Sarajevo,” and first line was “I can hear disaster walking. City is burning out like a tamyan in a church.” In this smoke, there is our conscious of that. And a squad of armed topola—armed trees. Everything I saw armed, everything I saw in terms of a fight, in terms of war, in terms of—in army terms. That was 20, 23 years ago, that I have written this poem, and many other poems have something of prediction, which frightens me sometimes [laughter].

Here it’s evident that Karadzic’s messianism begins as a fulfillment of prophecy, in other words, a vain sublimation of sociopathic fantasies. The God complex is even more glaring in this untitled poem:

This fateful hour stiffened and reached the sky
Like a tree it now binds all existence in its branches
I am the cause of universal distress
A certain knight called Moses secretly fears me
From this fateful hour hours pass by upward like my head
And you are bound by some chilly
By some frosty terror
It’s only the snake-like world that changed-its dirty skin
For the moment
It is only I who sprouted from the Universe like the morning star
And the Universe blushed with envy and changed colors
It is only cowards eating their cowardice
And their non-existent strength
It is I speaking and burning
I won’t be silent after all
And let the crowd go to the devil past redemption
I’ll handle you in no time
And without much ado
And right at this moment
A tomcat shall peep at the neighborhood kitty through a chink
And two lovers
Shall stand by the first casket on hand
And kiss each other as I command

If you are interested, the links to the poems feature several other poems. I’ve used my “favorite” of these in this entry… But what do these poems say about Karadzic’s aesthetic ideas?

Walter Benjamin, in his influential essay called “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” argues that “all efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war.” Being that this essay was published in 1936, during the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, Benjamin links the aesthetization of politics directly with nationalistic fascism. Perhaps the earliest voice for such a war aesthetic (and fascist art) is Italian Futurist F.T. Marinetti. In a manifesto about the Ethiopian Colonial war, Marinetti wrote:

War is beautiful because it establishes man’s dominion over the subjugated machinery by means of gas masks, terrifying megaphones, flame throwers, and small tanks. War is beautiful because it initiates the dreamt-of metalization of the human body. War is beautiful because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery orchids of machine guns. War is beautiful because it combines the gunfire, the cannonades, the cease-fire, the scents, and the stench of putrefaction into a symphony. War is beautiful because it creates new architecture, like that of the big tanks, the geometrical formation flights, the smoke spirals from burning villages, and many others…Poets and artists of Futurism! …remember these principles of an aesthetics of war so that your struggle for a new literature and a new graphic art … may be illumined by them.

Through the aesthetization of war, the Futurists sought to figuratively destroy the fetters of the past, the hands of history, the forms of memory. In that sense, Karadzic is the Fascist Futurist ideal: the tyrant-warrior poet that sought to destroy history and memory in the most palpable way possible, through genocide. Following this logic, Karadzic may have hoped the Bosnian War to be his Symphonie Phantastique. That such gruesome and cruel reality be equated with the transcendence of art may be a symptom of our hyper-capitalist modernity, where self-alienation (as Benjamin wrote) “has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.”

– s