Author of The Fragility of Things: self-organizing processes, neoliberal fantasies, democratic activism, Duke, fall, 2013
As I compose this I am sitting on a gorge in Ithaca, New York, a gorge formed over endless centuries by the loud, cascading falls situated at one end of it. I sit here the day after seeing “The East,” a May, 2013 film on corporate eco-terrorism, private intelligence firms that secure them, and the closeted eco-warriors who stalk both by adopting parallel tactics. The title is meant to recall the underside of the privileges bestowed upon the corporate east in America and the mess in the middle east today. But the geological resonance is also pertinent because some geologists contend that the Biblical story of Eden, situated in “the middle east” 6000 years ago, is actually a mythic condensation of faint memories passed down to later generations of a bygone era when an area stretching from the Arabian peninsula to the current Sahara had been a vibrant, fertile, green zone. Over a short period a radical change in climate transformed it into a desert. There are even remains of a sophisticated structure reminiscent of Stonehenge through which the leading intellects of the day tried to figure out what in hell was happening to their climate and world.
The condensation of that climate event in Genesis, at least as interpreted by Augustine, is one in which the first humans in the garden rebelled against God and we were all punished severely for their rebellion: labor in child birth thereafter for women, toiling in barren fields for men, and the experience of death for all. Climate change, human willfulness and divine punishment. The story is often used as a lesson in obedience, but also lurking in it, especially in the earliest J version, is a sense of powerful natural forces which we must tend as best we can. The Book of Job puts both stories into play too. Here is a somewhat different story: The first humans did not deserve what they got; we may deserve what we are sowing; future generations may reap the effects of our original sin.
“The East” is directed by Zal Batmangli and stars Brit Marling (who also co-wrote it). It co-stars Ellen Page and Shiloh Fernandez. Sarah works for a spooky corporate intelligence and undercover agency that infiltrates and breaks up eco-warrior groups. Our heroine is assigned to infiltrate an undercover group devoted to locating corporate eco-terrorism and enacting “jams” to make them experience precisely what their policies do to others. Does you pharmaceutical company produce a medication that creates severe mental dissociation? Do you then deny it? Let’s infiltrate the company celebration and pour the same medication into their drinks. Does your manufacturing company pour toxic wastes into the river at a precise time every night? Let’s capture the bosses and compel them to swim in the river just as the toxic brew gushes out of the huge pipe above them.
Reviews of the film so far often ask whether the suspense works well and whether the infiltration strategy is realistic. Demote those questions. The key thing is that Sarah soon becomes a double agent, not in the sense of playing both sides against the middle for her own gain. But in the sense of finding that part of her comes to identify with the goals and practices of the eco-warrior group and that part clings to the cool, more cynical analyst loyal to the firm. Also, part of her is mesmerized by the warrior tactics—who would not feel a thrill as you see those corporate cads swim in the slime they have brewed?—and part of her is drawn to bring the cool, technical knowledge and tactics she has learned at the firm to a new cause. She is a doubly identified agent. In this way she captures the predicament many of us are caught in today. We are appalled by corporate eco-terrorism; we find our responses to it to be inadequate; we fear for ourselves and families when we consider other options; and we don’t want to become as dogmatic and punitive from our side as the corporate terrorists are. We think that the latter approach will backfire. And yet we are dissatisfied with our current modes of double agency.
Eventually Sarah develops a strategy of public expose and activism that draws some sustenance from her two identities and resists the traps each sets for her. I will let that part unfold when you watch the film. Is it enough? Probably not. Could more of us participate in such acts to augment the potential they hold? Yes, we could. Many of us are what Michel Foucault called “specific intellectuals”, people with special knowledges and skills because of the work we do in law firms, medical practices, college teaching, blog writing, pharmaceutical companies, intelligence agencies, the media, school boards, churches, geological research, corporate regulatory agencies, and so on, endlessly. Each of us has specific modes of strategic information and critical skill linked to our role assignments. We can expose horrendous practices, as Snowden has done recently. We can also support others who do so as we seek to build a critical assemblage of public insurrection together.
Sarah provides a metaphor and exemplar for our time. Those two innocent children in the fertile garden did not deserve the fate imposed upon them. They therefore suffered a double injury: the fate and their sense of deserving it. And we today? We either contribute to the fate that will befall us or withdraw from fights against corporate eco-terrorism. The next generation will not deserve the fate bestowed upon it, but we are saddled with differential degrees of responsibility. I have explored multimodal kinds of action to be pursued under such circumstances in a recent post on “The Dilemma of Electoral Politics”. The cool Sarah does much more. She acts in ways that inspire us to think and act differently.
What about the warrior clan she infiltrates? To me, they simultaneously inform us, slide too close the adversaries they oppose, and pursue some actions that are apt to backfire under the glare of publicity. Are they, though, also invaluable prods? Yes. They are, perhaps, the Antigones, Nat Turners and John Browns of today. They force us to rethink, with Sarah, how we remain caught in oh so carefully crafted circles of self-protective pessimism, or cynicism, or innocence, or indifference. They spur us on. They press us to consider again just what mix of courage and tactical wisdom are appropriate to the fateful issues of today. We need the intensity they exhibit joined to multimodal critical practices, ranging from role experimentations through exposes to social movements and electoral politics—each of these enacted as an indispensable contribution to the others. Check out the film. Exacerbate, in the company of others, the double agent circling within you.