About Historical Studies of Old Spain in the Age of Brexit Britain and of Trump Presidency: On John H. Elliott’s History in the Making (2012).

What follows is an abbreviated version of a longer critical interrogation of the (un-)making of the meaningfulness of historical life in direct relation to the most recent piece titled History in the Making (2012), by the eighty-seven-year-old English historian John Huxtable Elliott. This will be a necessary departure from the conventional praises typically circling Elliott, almost like an exaltation of larks, but you can pick your favorite choice of collective allegorical animal apropos cultures of historical and cultural scholarship in our most pressing times. The hope is to provoke critical thought not only among self-appointed guardians of professional-history visions, likely to be direct progeny of our main historian in question. The historical knowledge production appertains here directly to Spain among other localities, and this one is surely caught up firmly, still by this late date, between Anglophone powers of both sides of the Atlantic, Great Britain and the United States. This is our imaginary Bermuda triangle of vortex and vertigo, disappearances and shipwrecks, whilst attempts at the revival of the “special relationship” are being broadcast urbi et orbi by the popular political media. We must all go on exploring possibilities beyond any type of national (-istic) demarcations never entirely following the directions provided by official interpellations.


Diligence and longevity must have their due: the career of our professional historian, English born and trained, covers the last fifty-odd years, starting say from the 1960s, about thirteen books against the background of Franco Spain, the Marshall Plan for post-WWII Europe, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, Winston Churchill in power, in alternation with Clement Attlee, until 1955, the “swinging sixties,” etc. A lot of rain has fallen and not only in the plains of Spain ever since . Our celebrated historian’s good fortune has been to invest in the Early Modern and colonial legacies of the somewhat peripheral country of Spain, the so-called “Imperial Spain” moment of its history (say, 1500-1700; move a few decades up and down starting from the emblematic 1492 and reach the 1800 or 1830, the beginning of the Latin American nation formation, I suppose, and the beginning of “modernity” proper). This is surely a daunting landscape of vast imaginary presences to cover.

Three initial questions: What is the global impact or legacy of such “imperial Spain”? Why should anyone bother and pay attention today centuries later in the midst of a certain crisis of the profession of “history” and of the “humanities” against the larger constellations provided by the governments of Theresa May’s Brexit Britain, Trump’s U.S.A. and Rajoy’s Spain in the 21st century (it is the ghost of Winston Churchill passing back and forth the Atlantic as well, together with Margaret Thatcher, trying to blow new official life into the “special relationship”)? Elliott’s shopkeeping has been done quietly and dutifully, without inclination towards stridencies and no apparent appetite for polemics, at least outside the Iberian-peninsula circles (we will see soon his endorsement of a certain orthodoxy about the “myth” of the Catalans). Therefore, no one can fault him for revolutionary articulations. I fail to see major rewrites in the last two panoramic books covering the wider Atlantic world, inside which the nation still called Spain is to be included. But it is the latest work that directly concerns us here.


The already four-year-old History in the Making is a rather quiet affair afforded to the undisturbed perspective of a professional historian. If the dawn promised no big deeds, the horizon offers no vistas outside plural options for professionalism with no comments on the present tensions and dilemmas. Loyalty is to the arts and crafts of a professional historian the way he understand the social role to be. This is no avant-garde movement. The reader will not find mind-blowing events. Are there any storms in the teacups? Are there no elephants in the room? We are dealing with the no-frill, no-shrill, no-fuss, ever-so-gradual scaffolding of the profession of history according to a historian devoting his best energies to the foreign periphery of Europe, the focus is always on Spain, for the consumption of Anglophone readers on both sides of the Atlantic. There is a certain construction of orthodoxy, a certain manufacture of consent (Chomsky’s formula) apropos Elliott’s work, a quintessential-English calm, mood-free collation of visions landing on the “foreign country” and staying, so it appears, safely anchored there. This must have required strategy and brokering, keeping up the collaboration with British institutions of higher learning, Oxford University mainly I suppose, whilst securing the American platform since the Princeton years, and the sustained cultivation Spanish officialdom, its successive governments and a rich variety of cultural institutions (Casa América, Madrid; Duques de Soria; Fundación Consejo España – EEUU; Real Instituto Elcano, Royal Institute; José María Aznar’s Fundación FAES, etc.). There is in principle nothing wrong with this active public profile. One may defend a flexible, facultative dimension responding to various circumstances. Yet, let us underline the officialist and institutionalist imprint to this “imperial Spain.” Birds of a feather…


The chapter headings are: 1/ Why Spain?; 2/ National and transnational history; 3/ Political history and biography; 4/ Perception of decline; 5/ Art and cultural history; 6/ Comparative history; 7/ The wider picture. The title phrasing is reader-friendly unassuming: we are dealing with modalities of types of history with a dissenting middle section addressing the theme of decline. There is no Saint George and no dragons in sight, no big fights or wars. There is a wish for impersonality, a bit surprising for someone so public at least in the context of Spain. Elliott largely eschews from defining historiographic debates, also avoids battles among theories and quarrels among philosophies (no need to beat the theoretical drum). History in the Making is a bit of a peace-keeping mission into historical domains. Predictably, there will be no explicit, self-aware invocation of ideology either, much less self-positioning among plural options, and the intelligent response is to assume tacit self-awareness on his part. In the end, Elliott does not hesitate to espouse the values seemingly of another time and place, of sobriety and pragmatism, of concrete-timespace demarcations of objects of study made clear by textual evidence, of “facts” needing no quotation marks, of being closer to being “a splitter” than “a lumper” (J.H. Hexter), and more of “a truffle hunter” than “a parachutist” (Emmanuel Le Roy); yet he is willing, he says, to give it a try and try both, to “have its cake and eat it too” (recent line of larger Brexit-Britain reverberations), in direct relation to the more Atlanticist and ambitious works written in the second half of the 2000s. Yet, for all the magnificent canvas of imperial histories, our historian remains fundamentally anchored in the continental-European part of the world both feet on the Iberian-peninsula offshoot. And he does so whilst defending the high standards of the British historians, call the gesture “red, white and blue.” The divide between “one’s own” and “foreign” is not mine, is his. It remains a constant in this book until the end. The preface, probably written last, is vivid declaration of lack of faith in the need for greater abstractions, or theories. It is genuinely unconvincing:

“I believe that theory is of less importance for the writing of good history than the ability to enter imaginatively into the life of a society remote in time or place, and produce a plausible explanations of why its inhabitants thought and behaved as they did” (p. xi).

The sentence is spurious and banal. It means nothing sustainable. Elliott is on the side of “good history” and the dis-relationship between the imaginary reconstruction of “their” thoughts and behaviors with ours begs the interrogation that will here not happen. This is like flying with nothing as though the imagination had no epistemological parachute, or theory. And where are you standing, on what “earth”? And why going there? What are you looking for? Why bother? What would that do? Why Spain?, indeed, is the initial chapter title and the question is, for him, non-rhetorical. The answer turns out to be a combination of youthful trips, fortuitous circumstances, personal predilections, early professional intentions and intersections and taciturn, if not tacit (ideological) interests. The nominal list includes: “temperament, upbringing, chance and calculation” (p. 4).


“Why Spain?” conveys, in quick-brush strokes, early student-trip encounters with Franco Spain in the summer of 1950. In what is probably the most detailed, sunny and biographical, also the most distant in time and less polemical, section of History in the Making, the author remembers his own shadow, the twenty-plus-years-old student from Cambridge travelling with his mates to a geography full of misery and poverty and yet of “enormous dignity” (p. 2). Spanish will not come first choice of the cafeteria menu at Cambridge and elsewhere, during 1950s, trailing the most significant impact of other modern foreign languages of power and prestige such as French and German, and perhaps this is still true today . Spanish history was, and is still, a less crowded field of professional endeavor in Anglophone countries, its Golden Age still customarily decorated with “Black-Legend” rubrics. “Why Spain?” paints the brisk portrait of a historian as a young man in foreign lands. The defining connection is the chance encounter with Museo-del-Prado Velázquez’s Conde Duque de Olivares imposing equestrian portrait. The two moments are put together: the Franco Spain in the 1950s and the 1640s society of “economic and technological backwardness, religious obscurantism and a general torpor that left it behind lagging far behind its European rivals” (p. 7). The approach to art and politics is in general term not that of recently deceased John Berger (his Ways of Seeing, first published in 1972 after a very successful BBC series), but is instead indeed closer to the Princeton colleague, the American art-historian Jonathan Brown’s Kenneth Clarkesque civilizational stance of high-culture-high-power Europe with whom there has been collaboration at least since 2002. One historical precedent in the Golden Age of archeology: the three-dimensional transplant, the Patio from the Renaissance Castle of Vélez Blanco (1506-1515), set up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York city, eloquent example of the cultural appetites of a minority American elite in the age of the robber barons.


The promising combination theme of aesthetics and politics is not, I firmly believe, fully explored here, not even hinted at. There is the perception of a retraction from explaining why the study of absolutism still merits time and effort. Contemporaneity is not talked about, remaining stuck in the 1950s and 1960s. There is no future release. Elliott does not point fingers in the best direction for the future for others to follow suit. He never goes in the direction of ambitious comparativism of political theory of absolutism, a la Perry Anderson say , much less in the relatively recent fashion of the “political theology” of a Carl Schmitt brought to life via Agamben’s “state of exception” among others . This is very hot water for almost all of us, not leaving the immediate global scene intact. Elliott historicizes the age of absolutism whilst no doing political theory, much less comparative political theory among different national modalities, leaving the immediate circumstances, its pressures and preferences, un-developed. There is the valid charge of cogito interruptus. What is history without politics? What is politics without history? Both terms go hand in hand and the demand must be, surely, for the explicit rendition of both in a life trajectory recollecting itself in tranquility after having spent considerable time in at least three nations in the West.

Yet, what Elliot is after is the patient reconstruction of the sensibilities of the political figures of power and privilege in the age of Absolutism, with or without the patient rendering of the certainly imposing and demanding Baroque aesthetic. His typical public presentation will be the history of mentalities of figures such as Count-Duke of Olivares, Hernán Cortés or Philip II, trying to imagine “their” world from “their” perspective, or so he says. Elliott is much less interested in other perspectives not necessarily being subsumed under such privileged examples, aesthetics remaining a rather thin dimension never fully strutting its stuff convincingly, despite the usual story of high achievement and embarrassment of riches for others to enjoy.

Our young man, historian in embryo, had still to navigate a series of figures (Butterfield, Plumb, Runciman, Knowles). There is also the presence of the scholar-diplomat Marañón, historiographic precedent in relation to Count Duque of Olivares, and of course the reference has to be to two towering figures of French historiography such as Febvre and Braudel (pp. 7-9). Past and Present is counterpoint to the Annales school, and our non-Marxian member of the English-historian collective no doubts in the doubling of the “Marxist and marxisant [sic, in italics in the original)” inclinations of the always more revolutionary French side he admired at some distance (national stereotypes can be played up, amusingly, also in relation to historians). The French do “total history” without compunction, hesitation and false guilt like they do their wines and cheeses and other delights in life, willingly and happily hereafter, and one cannot but feel that they are the true big players at least in the mid-twentieth-century Cold-War European vicinity.

Our more modest author does not get carried away. He declares his resistance to “a deterministic approach” of economic and social history (p. 9) in a gesture that clears the dust of impeachment away from the big wigs and the elegant jackets of their French counterparts ambitiously cutting a big swathe through human avatars . The theme was then as it is now, yet somewhat mitigated, that of the “difference” (p. 5) within the European terrain . Elliott is happy to oblige. How so? He is always keen to mitigate all the claims to (radical) difference and exceptionalism (he does not dwell on the debate between Sánchez Albornoz and Américo Castro raging during those decades, deferring to Peter Russell’s 1959 review, pp. 128 & 228). One may be allowed to wonder out loud how big the difference is between the two singularities, specificity and exceptionalism: is the latter too absolute, extreme, absolute burning holes into all comparative grids of intelligibility?

Elliott speaks of his acquaintance with the Archive of Simancas and with Catalonia in 1953. Archival pursuits no longer appear later in the text as though the digital world had made them obsolete. The theme of the revolt of the Catalans emerges. Here there is an uneven combination of sympathy for the Catalans under Franco by the “genuine outsider” status, neither Catalan nor Castilian (p. 19) against the historical legacy of the legacy of the centralist measures of Conde Duque de Olivares in congruence with the conventional theme of the centralized bureaucracy of historical absolutism (Anderson’s account within theoretical historical materialism is extraordinarily rich in this regard). How such centralization plays out in the 1700s, how that finds an echo during Franco years, and how that becomes the current cacophony in contemporary Spain, is a tight-rope walking blindfolded in between tall buildings. One wishes there had been a bit more explicit development.

His is also a “tricky balancing act… not being able to “claim to have been consistently successful in preserving [his] stance” (p. 20); yet, this is retroactively applied to the dominant figure of Vicens Vives, who worked from within dispelling internal Catalan myths (“myth” being false ideas held by others in historical matters, or otherwise, in informal conventional parlance). Again, there is no elaboration, which is a pity, so we may all surmise what those myths might have been perhaps still are and what consistency in relation to what might have looked like, or whether it is still lagging behind tense contemporary avatars. The anecdote with the policeman in the street who tells a Catalan-speaking Elliott to “speak in the language of the empire… [I]t seemed as though, in spite of the passage of three centuries, time had stood still” (p. 25). We do not know how the anecdote developed, and it must be contextualized today with his presentations for the virulently centralist former Prime Minister for Partido Popular José María Aznar’s FAES organization (his former Ph.D. student acting as mediator). One may wonder if any of this internal tension will have any great repercussions at all beyond the borders of the Iberian peninsula.


The work on the secretary (valido) of Philip IV points towards the centralization implemented and the defeat of the periphery to the center of the constituted nation . There are no easy, direct equivalences between these rapid-changing negotations standing in the quicksands of Iberian-peninsula politics with other domains inside the larger continental release or outlet . There is nothing about the recent Blair-epoch devolutions of Britain for example. Our historian puts himself solely as the “foreign scholar,” using “imperial Spain” phraseology, but keeping his distance from Francoist celebrations of a glorious past. All of this is very attenuated in the democratic decades, as though it was white noise to current predicaments. Books may still have an effect, even if unread and never opened. Such admission of retroactive incongruence must have played well with the ghost of the past holding hands with Vicens Vives, but not now against the complicated themes of regime centralization, and the Golden-Past title, with or without the necessary nuances. The Franco’s authoritarian regime in the 1950s and 1960s, ever so slowly unfreezes and opens itself up to the “free” West during the Cold War moment, the closer cultural domination of France gradually loses gradually its grip over the “Anglo-Saxon” nations, in the old nomenclature. General things appear to go in the right direction, accordingly. Elliott is 45, already looking at things from the American platform, by the official year of Spanish Democracy in 1975.

The self-description is that of an outsider perfectly willing to keep the foreign status. It is repeated more than once (pp. 19, 29, 30, 31, 32, 171, etc.); and the term of outsider is here, undoubtedly, to be understood with none of the counter-cultural connotations of popular-culture, scandalous swinging sixties, or turning the tables upside down in the historiography (would postcolonial historiography qualify?). Wake up and smell the coffee: this self-assignation does not wish to strike a dissonant note or a strident chord. There is no tongue sticking out of no rolling stone mouth throwing no brick at no winter palace, or Casa del Buen Retiro where the Monarchs would have enjoyed the good retreat from official duties. The “outsider” and “foreign” self-assignations here rest on the quiet “virtues” of neutrality, impartiality and the pragmatism of the balancing of fact against evidence, and thus building imaginary pasts according to the reconstruction textual evidence always circumscribed in time and place according to the archive, but there is no need to turn Derridian in the interrogation of what the archive means.

The rejection of what is called “essentialism,” still no need for appeals to the tools of deconstruction, goes hand in hand with the skepticism towards excessive comparativism of big trans- or international units. Radical, seemingly unmeltable, incomparable or exceptional particularity and the impossibly, unwieldy big units: how small is small and how big is big. Gradation and contextualism may do away with this false dilemma since we are all always already putting social units in relation with each other, and what would the matrix of comparativism ever be in the first place., where the vantage point of observation allowing and preventing a good observation for what community of readers or observers. The crucial issue is also how convincingly and what for. The good side of the coin: there is no xenophobia in Elliott’s scholarship; there are no intractable repudiation of schools of thought foreign to him; and perhaps it is simply a matter of “good manners” and not talking about what you dislike. The less good side is also the no apparent xenophilia, as though the nationalized demarcated object of study (Spain) did not manage to produce many instances worthy of emulation, also in relation to historiographic pursuits that could be exported to other localities. There is under-verbalization here. There is also mood neutrality, even if there is a certain (professional) proximity, a certain warmth even “love for Spain”, not atypically announced by state officials in public events. It is not clear what the fundamental intellectual merchandise is being delivered in the end of History in the Making. Or is it perhaps the case that we must all avoid such grandiloquent proclamations?

Our English historian has made his living and sticking to it with a keen sense of duty and diligence, making the most out of the aforementioned combination of “temperament, upbringing, chance and calculation.” There is no pushing the buttons of any type of orthodoxy, either British or Spanish; neither of “going-native” assimilation, no incidents with no policemen in a chronology closer to ours. There is no moment of being carried away emotionally in any one direction in particular as though the matters at hand warranted no big fuss . There is perceptible demarcation, the “been in it, but not of it,” as it is often said of English side of Britain, the Irish and Scots being different, versus continental Europe, and there is also something of a gentleman-like preservation of a distance, intellectual and emotional by the subject of study from the object of study, “Spain” indeed among other national entities (one is reminded in this regard of the English Prologue of the Revolt of the Masses by Ortega y Gasset). There is no sustained historical reconstruction of sensibilities of any social groups other than the ones in historical power and privilege as though they managed to monopolize all knowledge and all virtue. Identical charge can apply to the immediate here and now and there are oceans of immense neglect here.


I am developing a summary of an existential, historicist argumentation about the habitation of a “home,” or even possibilities for the vindication of expatriation, or theoretical exile, or migration, or “cultural translation,” as some scholarly tendencies have put it forth for the last two decades or so, in relation to the empiricist historicism informing History in the Making. There are no transculturations here and no apparent need for any of that. The “same-foreign” binary undergoes no fusion. The game of nationalities remains the same song along the chorus of existing United Nations with no gestures towards its insufficiencies, tensions, possible mutations. There are no desirable higher or lower planes, apparently, for the pursuit of interactions of these national/istic demarcations. “America,” with or without question marks, whether expansively or reductively understood to signify only the United States, represents no escape route, no alternative model, no desirability, no dilemma, no conundrum, for other, better knowledge production bringing into question the naturalness of Eurocentrism. Elliott has no commerce with Mexican intellectuals of the stature of Leopoldo Zea and this slow passing of ships in the night is telling. And why would he when this has not been his natural habitat, professional or otherwise? His history in the making is thus firmly in the antipodes of “postcolonial” endeavors provincializing the universalist claims of (post-)imperial Europe within the temptations of the West, currently monopolized internationally by the United States, and for how long.

But this line of thought would take us into the expansive geopolitical dimensions of cultures of historical and cultural study. Let us rein the signs of “history” and “making” and keep them tied up to the immediate dealings by our English historian in relation to his latest work. This making of history keeps history historical, out there, foreign; this is about the deeds of foreigners imaginatively inscribed in a society that is described as not ours. This making of history is mostly according to the making of Western historians, with majority-vote of Europeans, and Anglophone club of privilege among them, with rare incursions by other types, with the rare occasion of the anthropologists mostly delivering “cultural” dimensions of a certain relativism surely mitigating one and all claims towards essentialism (Geertz, p. 31ff). It is in this vicinity that our English historian provides a further twist to this screw in relation to the word of “hispanista,” which, to him, appears non-problematic (p. 35, 171). It is his vehicle, but “hispanism by itself is not enough” (p. 39). It must still fit into proper history, as the longer initial quote has it. I confess I do not know anyone who proudly shouts this self-definition from the tall buildings of his own native or adopted society. “Hispanista” here overlaps with the already clichéd anthropological divide between identity or sameness and difference or the “other,” and the nouns fall like chips on two separate camps or demarcations not to be blended. There is no crossing of lines. We remain in the binary, the dichotomy, no going higher and no going under, with an implied, implicit positive balance towards “one’s own society,” yet politely left under-verbalized and unresolved in History in the Making. “Spain” is here largely a “place” of heterotopia: a “foreignness” one goes to from time to time, or perhaps often, to get business done, perhaps to get a “good deal,” in the ominous language of the immediate present, but which delivers no fundamentals. Mutatis mutandis: the intelligent reader is invited to substitute the name of the country for another closer to his/her skin to feel the impact, if not the drama, of this cognitive situation. Would antiquarianism do as valid characterization?

Between my society and a society not my own, there is no return or two-way ticket; there is no “return of the gaze,” no apparent impulse to “turn the tables,” and no blowback either. There is no acknowledgement of the inequality of social forces involved. There is no interrogation of institutionality building bridges or walls between the various social groups in question. No declared or undeclared wars either. God forbid there is any invocation of ideological forces blowing fast and furious in the wings of these social agents, perhaps sitting rubbing thighs and shoulders during the public presentation, be in Madrid, London or elsewhere. There is, predictably, the easy fall into the conventional narrative of the “Black Legend” (p. 37ff). Play the song again, historicize and relativize it, give it a light touch, nuance it a bit or as much as you wish, and the song still remains the same, but without the energy of a Led Zeppelin. Explicitly, there is balanced exegesis and what else will be said publicly surrounded by state officials: “The persistence challenge is to make Spain comprehensible to an international readership” (p. 38). Elliott’s career has been mostly about brokering such collaborative comprehension. And yet these findings can be extrapolated to other nations (endlessly fascinating country with successes and failures, of universal importance, in perennial (re-, de-) construction and deconstruction in the vicinity of religious beliefs (the three big monotheistic religions), conqueror of an overseas empire, unity-and-diversity tensions within its own territory, “enormously rich if often controversial contribution to human civilization”). No one’s pulse will beat faster upon hearing this type of generic national performance.

There is something in History in the Making that remind me of the figure of the entomologist who keeps his facts and pieces of textual evidence nicely typed and labeled, and promptly updates the record of specimens within the taxonomies keeping them neatly in the collection boxes losing no composure while the strong winds are hurling all around out there beyond the closed blinds of a house not deemed in serious trouble. This history that is “there” does not appear to relate to the history “here” at any meaningful level of economics, politics, culture and aesthetics (but perhaps, the word “culture” must always be kept framed, after the impact of cultural studies, the impact of which our English historian does not give evidence he fully wants to follow or understand). A repetition is perhaps needed: the subject position keeps taciturnly, tacitly his own set of values, beliefs, predilections intact in the study of the history of the past of the object of study nationally, conventionally demarcated as “Spain.” There are no fundamental changes in trajectory and focus in the last fifty years, except crucially opening the lens and cover perhaps with soft eyes wider territory than the once central foreign mono-national entity. But the very division of subject and object of study is been kept here for pedagogic purposes: it has been long lost its hermeneutic plausibility at least since the hey day of positivism about a century ago. History in the Making walks the path of epistemological vistas without giving us big landscapes, a bit like the stubborn impulse following the blinkered vision fixated on the dangling carrot in front of the nose, call it Spain if you wish.

Embarrassing questions accordingly may follow the gallop along the pathways: what about the aetiology, the teleology of the study of history? What is the point of it all? What set of circumstances causes the study? Whither is it going? Any withering at all, perhaps? Are there any problems at all with “history,” as professional and non-professional endeavors? What is the intended audience of readers and interpreters of this “good history”? Where is the explicit political background of contemporary Britain and Spain? History in the Making does not want to rise up to the higher occasion of the epistemological justification of the importance of these historical studies for the societies directly implicated. Who is doing the promotion of these historical studies? Where is the explicit rendition of the social texture, or the “culture,” almost understood in the predominant sense of the biological sciences, (i.e. the cultivation, the preparation of nutrients, the husbandry of ideas), inside which these studies have emerged with such visibility? What ideas are being discarded like broken furniture; what new tools with which to move forward? History in the Making wants no drama. It is genuinely wanting and unsatisfactory work, intellectually speaking. This deliberate, dreadful silence on the part of the historian has been no obstacle for the conferring of many honorific degrees, at least fifteen according to unreliable Wikipedia information on him. Who would dare flick these tassels and pull from these infulae?

Chapter two is titled “national and transnational history,” and our “middle-class mid-twentieth century English man” (p. 40) reconstructs his Catalan years, summoning the unfamiliar, provincial ghosts of Ferran Soldevila, Vicens Vives, and Rovira i Virgili (pp. 42ff). Vives is called “dominant, if controversial” (p. 43) in the demythologizing of Catalan history (since “myth” is “bad” in the conventional English sense that it will be the erroneous belief system of other; let us underline the polite distancing of “controversial,” and the tactful withdrawal from the explicit rendition of the controversy). Conventionally therefore, the Catalans are “nationalist” in relation to their own historiography in a way that others, let us call them Spanish-nationalists perhaps, are less so or perhaps not at all. Elliott takes this “bad” nationalism via the famous formula of Benedict-Anderson’s “imagined communities,” all the way to (bad) “exceptionalism,” or “chosen nation syndrome” (p. 45, sic in quotes in the original), which can perhaps be better deciphered as stubbornly resistant particularity or unbelievably exceptional specificity, perhaps even messianic.

It is circumstantial evidence that will make the position clearer. Elliott’s distance is not elaborated. The implication is the encomium of medias res akin to the liberal-bourgeois narrative of the desirable occupation of the tightly held center between fascism and communism during the Cold War moment of history of the West that appears to be making a comeback, or the Suárez’s UCD transition to democracy with the tactful incorporation of the Franco regime finding its place on the right of the political spectrum, its following generations regaining power since the Aznar government (who remembers the notorious photo of the Azores with Blair and Bush and the launching of the Iraq war?). Inevitably, we are dealing with intellectual pursuits, knowledge production and ideological alliances and a variety of interests in environments that cannot be circumscribed to any one nationality in question, Britain and the U.S. included, and perhaps all imperial nations have made claims to exceptionalism, and we can also think of the Jewish community, and its claims to being the “chosen people” by the terrible God who did not spare them the horror of the Holocaust. We may imagine our English historian shaking his head in displeasure and disbelief at these explicit presentations of a firm conviction or declarative belief, in the self-important national, imperial specificity. His mood and mode always appear to walk away from exaggerated temptations of continued relevance challenging time passing, as though “history” would not inevitably fail to cut us all to size and deliver the flattening out in the possibility of comparativism in theory.

Elliott keeps his distance from the contemporary revolts of the Catalans and a certain independentist historiography (p. 47), not made explicit. Elliott receives praise from being “fair to all the parties” (p. 48), and he behaves a bit like a blue-helmet member of the United Nations officially deployed in areas of (intellectual, social) conflict. He can afford to do so, appearing, a bit unbelievably if you asked me, as though he had no axe to grind on this earth. Our good representative of the nation of Saint George has no ugly dragon to slay (Catalonia and England share patron saint!, would he mediate amiably for both possibilities, would his historical scholarship be handmaiden to this or that party, contingency, etc.?). The reader has been forewarned: the “outsider [was] of course” less emotionally involved than natives such as Vicens Vives indulging in his myths. The name of Pierre Vilar (1906-2003) is mentioned at this conjuncture in what appears a compliment, with “a more positive story to tell” (p. 49). Again, the curious reader may scratch the skull about the constituents of such positivity since the prose remains generally ungiving amid natives and outsiders, revisionist histories, gains and losses inside a trajectory that can be generally described, not without a good doses of healthy sense of humor, as the civilizational march with no major crises and existential dilemmas. Elliott returns to Benedict Anderson’s imagined communities, and the generalized importance of myths and legends and of the understandable fears and anxieties of being devoid of symbols for national-community construction. This is no code, but a series of banalities that amount to siding with centralist-nationalist histories without ever engaging in social groups fighting for power and privilege in a demarcated territory. Our historian puts forth the generality of not “clinging too tightly to an invented or distorted past [that] can all too easily lead to disaster” (p. 49). And the jump is to the equation of a bad qua mythological Catalanist history and the criminal Serbia (pp. 49-50). The analytical scissors cut no persuasive cloth. The comparativism is too timid, predictable and “safe.” The calculations of the tailor are “unionist” and “conservative.”

These are major, multi-directional issues, whether played in the Catalan domain or elsewhere: the perforce teleological and reductive national history (p. 51), and perhaps one should quickly add the more appropriate notion of the nation-state, which is the looming shadow that our English historian has fundamentally chased for most of his career. The inclusion of the more localized enclaves such as the patria (p. 55) does not appear to resolve the political tensions alluded to, neither in relation to the early-modern dimensions or the “modern” issues (Elliott avoids entirely and systematically the languages of the postmodern and of the (post-)colonial and this double avoidance is profoundly revelatory). Elliott says he shares the preoccupation of younger historians for a look into the state that is “less purely institutional” (p. 65), and the realization of the “inadequacy” of the aggregation of single countries adding up to the larger domain of European history (p. 73). He speaks of “cutting across” national boundaries, hence the advocacy of contact zones or “transnational history.” In relation to the seventeenth century, Elliot conventionally speaks of the two models, the Anglo-Dutch of near-republican model, greater representation and more plurality of creeds, and the more authoritarian and centralized and more religious uniformity, or the French model (p. 74): the Anglo-Scottish union of 1707 (no broaching of nationalism here) is compared to the more centralized and repressive Castilian-centric Bourbon dynasty.

The “greater resilience” of the Anglo-Dutch model finds what I would describe to be an economic-deterministic apologia pro longa vita sua:

“Liberty and representative institutions proved in the long run to offer a better recipe for raising revenues and ensuring credit-worthiness than government decrees and royal promises” (p. 75), and Elliott leans on Roland Mousnier for such pillar of justification. The privileging of the dominant narrative of the centralized nation-state is brought into sharper relief, if only one pays attention to other darker areas, complexities and paths not taken. There are quite a few of these. Unions bring with themselves the “negative” opposite of disunion, or fragmentation, or even difference and diversity. Elliot closes this second chapter by proposing that the Austro-Hungarian empire and the Spanish composite state under the Austrias may still have new things to say to the historians of the nation-state (p. 79). In the end he will go further east, via good old Ranke, to the Ottoman Empire (p. 217), for others to pursue, as though by strong implication what Leopoldo Zea called “core [Carolingian Empire] Europe,” minus the British Isles, had nothing new to add to these burning issues anymore. Bringing none of this “home,” Elliott has nothing to add.

“Political history and biography” is the rather “British-populist” title of chapter 3. If the previous chapter attempted a relative depoliticization of his own foreign professional-historian position, this chapter will not dwell at all in political theory or contemporary politics (the geopolitics of transnational or international levels is something our scholar does not ever wish to contemplate in relation to pressures or fashions informing historical studies). Elliott remains committed to a history largely from above, hence his focus is typically always on the institutional-official archive of the nation-state history punctuated by a few good men in power preferably painted by recognizably famous painters . Biography remains a very popular British genre, and one that is only gender-neutral initially. Be it Conde Duque de Olivares, Hernán Cortés or Philip II, Cardinal Richelieu, Elliot’s natural tendency is in the antipodes of those with no history, or on the darker side of the Renaissance. There is no big space for ethno-history or “social history” from the more humble or subaltern or below. Extra-European domains acquire a wallpaper background decoration to more important avatars elsewhere. And this is fine at least for a certain type of historical craftsmanship which no longer appears to occupy center stage in the profession, and it is no secret that some globalize from here in the new century still holding tight to the banner of toleration and pluralism: I am mostly circumscribing the most immediate type of “history in the making” that will present no revolutionary findings in the course of a lifetime. Elliott appears to lose inspiration and emphasis once we begin to contemplate social spaces not covered by the looming shade of the nation-state. Where to go then: to the preoccupations of religious dimensions? To the intricacies of aesthetics? Both dimensions appear secondary or even tertiary to Elliott’s interests. There is no inclusion of religious belief and the Baroque is but the thinnest of presences. Marañón and Cánovas del Castillo helped him initially with Conde Duque de Olivares, who here appears to signify little more than Iberian-peninsula centralization program proper to absolutism.

But we are in the mental world of 1973 and Elliott crosses the pond to settle down in Princeton, New Jersey where he will reside for 17 years. It is in strong contrast to the French Annals colleagues that he sees the potential of a Spanish counterpoint to the “strong man” personality of Gaspar de Guzmán y Pimentel Ribera y Velasco de Tovar, Cardinal Richelieu. I recall the great line by John Beverley that most historians have been invested in telling the biography of the nation-state, with or without crises or detours . Elliott is to be included here, with or without his American vistas. The throwaway lines of Braudel open a big window of opportunity for Elliott (p. 88). Our English historian values what the Annals authors leave firmly behind: biography. He defends the power of human agency and he appears to open up warmly to the hegemony of the “culture” approach, leaning even closer to “cultural conditioning,” including his own (p. 93). He chooses Butterfield over Marxist or marxisant (sic, always in italics) interpretations of the past (p. 93): human agency and MacMillan’s “events, dear boy, events” over Braudel’s longue durée. It is impossible not to see a certain intellectual “nationalism” here against larger vistas provided by the United Nations of Spanish, French and American colleagues.

The follow-up is vastly unpersuasive: the history writing of the ambitious historian is about capturing an age, making human actions comprehensible in a narrative flow. History is a reconstruction that draws the reader in. The crucial aspect is the biography of the main or a principal actor, with or without the awareness of the “dangers of the ‘great man’ approach to the study of the past” (p. 96). And from what perspective is this executed, if not from that of the nation-state with its official resources, archives, etc.? You get the official public-intellectual profile of the English professor in contemporary debates in the Iberian peninsula about the legacy of empire and of the revolt of the Catalans to be contained, and what are other topics emerge forcefully? Two names are mentioned with appreciation: Domínguez Ortiz and Ruiz Martín open the historical age to him (p. 94). And a third one is added, the “leading historian of ideas” Maravall, credited with the top position in the podium of “Golden Age Literature;” yet his famous Baroque studies remain “controversial” (pp. 95 & 150); and here we go again: Elliot’s charge is that of a (narrow) Baroque functionalism. History in the Making provides no dealings with the monumental historiography of the Baroque sensibility.

There is no one single quote from Golden Age literature and culture colleagues in the humanities handling the “controversial” legacy of the Baroque inside Spanish-speaking nations and outside. Elliott appears never to have crossed paths with Golden-Age specialists, much less Latin American colonial specialists agonizingly making his meager living in the U.S. where he resided for nearly two decades. It is therefore not surprising that upon hearing of the “linguistic turn” (pp. 104-5), he turns to, who else, but a second anthropologist, Geertz, and the importance of symbols in the “theater-stage” in the context of 19th century Bali in Indonesia, which is not exactly close to Gibraltar. Isn’t our English historian “kicking the ball on the pitch a bit defensively”? (remember the aforementioned analogy of the footballer simply telling us that he is playing good football). This is a bit of a long boomerang throw, away from his favorite disciplinary and his most familiar geographies, particularly for someone who has expressed his skepticism of long-range comparativisms. Elliott wants to play catch-up with a certain culturalism promoted by American anthropology about the importance of symbolic production. He takes it back into Early Modernity, but the Spaniards are not returning to the fold of “their own” Golden Age, but the period remains lifeless, demanding no urgency, so stereotypically pinnacle of excellence in the arts, if not politics, so supremely excellent in achievement that quotations and explorations are unworthy scholarly behavior. History in the Making invites piety and abstract encomium to the uninitiated for whom, as the beautiful line by Walter Benjamin has it, this beauty untested, has nothing at all alienating.

There is a quick, solitary reference to Kantorowicz inside this reference to thick symbology. But where are the Spanish specialists in the immediate Museo-del-Prado vicinity and their open love for Velázquez? Perhaps there are all hiding in the shade of the sole statue of Jonathan Brown. The tone is light but the issues are vital in relation to a historical scholarship that does not wish to contemplate international disparities, much less decolonization of knowledge practices. It appears that the Spanish colleagues remain circumscribed there in their own corral and do not travel far, fast and furious with their intellectual merchandise officially speaking to foreign places such as Indonesia, America, Britain, etc., not even with the entire official apparatus also in the Mariano Rajoy years! There is no detectable crisis of identity in Elliott. There is instead an impressive continuity: the chapter concludes with the possibility of a return to the lingering validity of the biographical approach, one that is not, pay attention to the adverbs, “purely biographical” (p. 112) or done in “narrow[ly]” institutional terms. “Imagination, empathy, the ability to master a wide range of diverse kinds of evidence” are declared to be ineluctable cardinal virtues needed in the arts and crafts of the challenging reconstruction of “political actors” shaping and being shaped by the political world. Mutatis mutandis: the professional historians too.


These pages wish to constitute a critical acknowledgement of the historical work done about old Spain. National labels and demarcations will not go away tomorrow, even by and about those who, with or without exiles, do not feel particularly nationalistic. Others will nationalize you and your visa papers will tell the bureaucratic truth. Another matter altogether is whether historical and literary studies must yield smilingly to this Procrustean bed cutting short your legs, arms and a portion of the thinking headpiece. We will all have to deal with the concert of nations since the a-national condition of global universality, or cosmopolitanism, does not yet its effective recognition. The Brexit Britain / Trump Era appear to bring to visibility a resurgence in virulent nationalism. We all need good luck with that one.

History in the Making has been our chance to pay critical tribute to Elliott. It has also been excuse and pretext to address the mirage of the singularity of the foreign-nation object of study and point in the direction of institutionality and ideology. Elliott’s historical studies of old Spain showing the virtues of diligence, perseverance and longevity must have their place of honor, but this cannot not be the final word, particularly in the Age of Brexit Britain and Trump (the presence of Rajoy must take a subordinate role, despite the apparent warmth between both European conservative leaders). History in the Making is indeed brief introspective account of the historical reconstruction of foreign dimensions of the secondary-tier nation-state of Spain within the European platform. This historical reconstruction gradually expands to cover to reach “America” over a big Atlantic dimension. With or without reticence, there is no pulling back from this big scenario.


This is historians’ history and it is of the “conservative” antiquarian kind, never mounting, as far as I can see, a contradiction to official discourse, at least publicly. There is nothing in Elliott’s literature that will ruffle feathers to the Spanish authorities as far as I can tell. But perhaps these sensibilities remain subtle and delicate like peacocks’. Our synthesis: the ideological configuration of this historical narrative is that of the march of the “liberal West,” and as such it is fundamentally Hegelian frame, with or without extensive readings of the big German and this is not “externality” to the intrinsic value of the historical studies, with or without the declared toleration of the plurality of takes. History in the Making is insufficient hybrid account, part-memoir, part-summary of a fifty-year professional-historian “travel” leaving more questions open in the end than closing them already in the second decade of the new century. Elliott’s explorations have gone ever so naturally, almost like mothballs mesmerized by the light and the dust in the official archive, in the direction of the mindset of the man in power, king, administrator or colonizer (Hernán Cortés, Philip II, Conde Duque de Olivares, etc.). And where would the need come to want to complicate this mental picture with darker, mixed and in-between states of being (Inés de la Cruz, Guaman Poma de Ayala, Olaudah Equiano, Fredrick Douglass… )? History in the Making offers no regrets. Our English historian is entitled to his predilections inside the big tent of “Atlantic history.” And who would dispute his many honorary awards? Yet, let us not close our eyes to the immense distance from disruptive cultural studies and belligerent postcolonial studies to name but two (the legacy of Marxism of Past and Present must have vanished from sight like a fast-moving ghost with no trace!). You are defined by your immediate interests and by the other ones persistently kept in others’ studios. This history making is the relative loosening from the moorings provided by old-fashioned positivism, British empiricism and antiquarianism, the invocation of facts and events give him away. But it is still not far away, not far enough into the other side of foreignness, Spanish or otherwise, to the darker side of the Renaissance, the thick textures of the Baroque, even the Moon or beyond the demarcation line where America becomes a central preoccupation, or this social group claiming this sort of thing must be given priority, or the inequality of access to knowledge production must be fought against, etc. Hence, the provocative call has been suggested to the need to Americanize and even Mexicanize the expansive Eurocentric historiography provided by Elliott, which remains a certain ideological type of liberal orthodoxy . The large narrative is largely implied, yet falls within the expansive progress of the liberal West. This is Eurocentric consciousness with American expansiveness without ever bringing itself about unpleasant phenomena such as Western universalism, barbarization and marginalization, not his own problem. These reconstructions of old Spain are put to good use by officialdom in the promotion of the good modern name of Spain, or “marca España,” with the easy, full collaboration of our historian. History in the Making is the closing of the books of the dutiful shopkeeper. There are no frills. There is no fuss. There is also a laudable flexibility and openness of mind in the end and a certain loosening of the tie and the shoelaces in the leaving a bit behind the singularity of the foreign nation of object of study. Historical linearities are all theoretically suspended: there is no need to go back to absolutist origins or Platonic causes leading to myriad effects. The belief in the teleological meanings appears to have been eroded to the core, nagging doubts nest in the holes there and I am recreating Ortega y Gasset’s language. Will the catastrophic ends of the West hold sustainable meanings for us? There are no figures of this immediate future and the specific references to proper names and facts stopped in the 1970s.

Elliott has collaborated with a thick institutional texture in Spain (Casa Real, Casa América, Duques de Soria, Fundación Consejo España – EEUU, Real Instituto Elcano, Royal Institute, Ministries of Culture of various governments, under Aznar and Rajoy, the FAES Institute of former President Aznar, etc.). This social function defines his scholarship, if it does not of course determine or exhaust it. The social impact is less visible in Britain and the U.S., it is after all about the foreign nation, “America” being background to other more important facts and thoughts happening mostly on the European side of the Atlantic. Such institutional proximity is not conducive to send alarmist messages. It has instead resulted into putting bad press to bed, of tactful presentation of different perspectives without reaching civil war among historians, and in essence of dispelling the myths of others and speaking of the modernity of the nation in consort with others. The English historian has put his old-Spain history to good use on behalf of the Spanish officialdom, keeping the post-Spanish-Civil-War present-tense tensions at bay. In this sense he has behaved dutifully like a good civil servant fulfilling his civic duty, and when parts of the egg are proven to be rotten, they will be declared to be indeed excellent publicly. Remember the curate and the bishop in the classic Punch cartoon? Is it fair to extend this civic lesson to parts of History in the Making? And what about the considerable production of Elliott?

Elliot has limited traffic with “theory” or philosophy of history. This historian does history like the football player simply plays football, refusing the talk about tactics, strategies, history of the competition, the club, the finances, the intellectual and scholarly needs… History in the Making sticks to its own business without getting distracted about the “wider picture,” as the title in the thinnest chapter, the last one, has it. History in the Making amounts to some introspection about the sustained trajectory and the work produced, and the emphasis must be placed on the “some.” The prose never gets too close for comfort. There are no confessions. Potentially provocative awkward moments, as with Américo Castro, are not explored. There is supreme caution here. History in the Making is sustained exercise in diplomacy, later years treated summarily with not many proper names and meaningful events. The prose is neither distracting nor arresting: serviceable. There are typically no stylistic flights of fancy, and when these occur, as for example the brief inclusion of T.S. Eliot’s poetry in the end, readers are entitled to wonder what the major point about wisdom is after all. Perhaps the whole point of History in the Making is to say that history, with or without capital letters, is not really about making big statements whatsoever about anything. This business is instead about, so it appears, the dutiful book-keeping of antiquarianism apropos the national object of (obscure) desire, not one’s own, call it Spain if you wish.


Note: This is abbreviated version of a longer piece.

The Visual Limits of American Liberal Democratic Internationalism and the Woman Indifference; On Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty.

The Visual Limits of American Liberal Democratic Internationalism and the Woman Indifference; On Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty.

By Fernando Gómez Herrero (fgh2173@gmail.com).

Initial Quotes:


To take seriously American liberal democratic internationalism, p. 410.


Until the late 1980s, American scholarship neglected to investigate with any comparative framework or historical depth the consequences for foreign peoples and for the international system of the greatest ambition of United States foreign policy over the past century: to foster democracy abroad as a way of ensuring national security, p. 393.


Whatever the differences among them, then, these three paradigms agree on one matter: democracy should seldom (realist theory), can seldom (comparative theory), will seldom (Marxism) be fostered abroad by American foreign policy. The attempt to investigate the impact overseas of American liberal democratic internationalism in terms either of specific countries or with respect to the international system is thus not what a serious person (read exponent of these schools) would choose to do, p. 396.


What is nonetheless striking in retrospect about American democracy promotion in these very different circumstances is how thin the actual conceptual structures were upon which Washington erected its ambitious undertakings. It was as if the Americans were working with pieces of a puzzle whose final composition escaped them, p. 350

zero dark thirty soldier agent contrast

There is a deep layer of Messianic consciousness in the mind of America… We were, as a matter of fact, always vague, as the whole liberal culture is fortunately vague, abut how power is to be related to the allegedly universal values which we hold in trust for mankind. Fortunate vagueness, he [Reinhold Niebuhr] explained, arose because in the liberal version of the dream of managing history, the problem of power is never fully elaborated, p. 353.


What better indication of the new era for Western historical science can there be than in the successful mating of Marxism with its historical breadth of vision, to a politically centered study of American foreign policy and world affairs?, p. 413.





Visual mass-culture products will be good occasion, not a festive one, for swift application of interrogation techniques on American foreign policy first and foremost and its harsh, brutal relationship with world affairs typically going begging for good discourse, also filmic, in the home of the brave. Better a little something than nothing at all, then and there will be little intellectual satisfaction and perhaps some perverse pleasure in the thriller. What follows is second chapter to a previous piece of criticism ”The Hurt Locker Shows U.S. Foreign Policy” (The Oberlin Review, April 30, 2010, p. 12).  Past: imperfect. Present: no better in relation to a political film Zero Dark Thirty by Kathryn Bigelow. And the title is military language for twelve thirty midnight hour, which refers to the unsurprising moment of the predictable culmination of the film, the manhunt of the supreme bad guy, the baddest of the baddest, mind you, which happens to be also the normal, standard indeed “natural” violation of international-law regulations by the U.S., exception to the rest of nations by virtue of its military superpower status. Make it explosive: imagine other nations doing it with your citizens apropos national-sovereignty boundaries, extraordinary rendition and enhanced interrogation techniques, indeed torture, and use of deadly violence, drones and commando attacks with collateral damage. Some of this “shit” hits you in the face with Zero Dark Thirty. One thing is the film and studies of it. Another thing is the “muck and stink that sometimes go into the effort of keeping this mighty country of ours intact and safe” as Bruni says, and there’s got to be some irony in the exalted phrasing since such “effort” happens to be “ruthless cost-benefit analysis and some very ugly things to which we should never turn a blind eye.” The all-inclusive first person plural is always problematic no matter how you peddle it in the marketplace of visual ideas (Frank Bruni, “Bin Laden, Torture and Hollywood,” New York Times, Dec. 8, 2012,  (www.nytimes.com/2012/12/09/opinion/sunday/bruni-bin-laden-torture-and-hollywood.html?_r=0). Yes, Zero Dark Thirty gives us some of that ugliness and my argument is that it does not do it enough, that there is something of a thriller going on around and with it, and it is always important to keep geopolitical matters somewhat separate from the manufacture of the film product and the cumulative effect of the marketing and the defensive declarations of its makers playing cautiously with tautologies (a film is a film) and neutralities of some sort (Bigelow’s declarations about being a pacifist, and how the similarities with the protagonist are not conscious, and the calculated small background of both and how deeply moral and political the film is, etc.). There is big banality about the individuality of the director in question, about her upbringing and childhood declarations, and good looks and artistic inspiration and authorial intention, however carefully modulated, is one aspect. Think of the needle in the haystack against the big tumble between the US and foreign affairs.

zero-dark-thirty poster

Yes, of course showing torture is not condoning it, and torture is morally reprehensible in abstract, and this is only one aspect of other political issues happening in the big terrain of politics called geopolitics. A cruel joke could be to ask Corleone why he tortures, and what do you think he is going to say?, while stupidly forgetting to mention that he also smuggles merchandise in the black market, that he remains secretive about kidnapping, killings, local-government alliances, etc. Same thing with the discourse about the torture promotion or denunciation in the film, which must be put together with other ugly things already in the open, as open as the suspension of civil rights in a democracy in the U.S. enclave of Guantanamo in the island of Cuba. Mostly, Zero Dark Thirty makes a thriller out of this, throwing the woman exception into the equation with a noticeable payback structure of contiguity (black screen with screams of those at 9/11 is followed up by torture scenes, the loss of one female-agent comrade, not quite a friend, makes the focus of the female-agent protagonist to capture the supreme bad guy sharper, etc.). There is here something of the conventional payback, the U.S. playing tough defense, they attacked us first, which is ideological trap of selective Procustrean bed of the geopolitical universe with U.S. as the fundamental force for good in the whole wide and messy world sometimes going awfully wrong and yet stick to the main clause. Zero Dark Thirty, to me, sticks to this narrative and the film fundamentally can be used well for CIA recruits. As written in relation to Hurt Locker, this is mostly about “suck it up.” Playing mischief with the famous song of James Brown, Bigelow’s filmic universe says that this is a man’s world and it would be nothing without a faithful woman out there in the same violent world.


Scan the conventional images and try to get some good images of American violence out there and a feeling for geographical discretion. Parse the grammar in the written press and try to see good handling of the uncomfortable language of “extraordinary rendition,” and “state terrorism.” Silence is thick. So it is good to see some in Zero Dark Thirty. It is, at least to me, beyond doubt that Bigelow makes her film name in the vicinity of military fascination, with or without the calculated statements about being (a-)political, or neutral, and how deeply moral the movie in question is. Call it display of brutal force if you will and around it you can do other things, for example the “woman” factor, or twist, or even tease, and not few will fall for this blindness and insight in relation to the sole woman who got an Oscar award, for directing the Hurt Locker. And there is the doubling in relation to the female protagonist, the CIA operative, being as forceful as she can be within and against a predominantly male universe of tough males and tough nails all about the business at hand with few distractions, the film industry may apply as well. There is, to me, more blindness than insight in the emphasis on the woman difference in difficult contexts of terrorism and its twin sister, state terrorism. As the main protagonist in Zero Dark Thirty says at one point in the film, she is effectively the “motherfucker” who brought the very bad and very foreign guy to the critical attention and within happy trigger-distance of the good guys in the unsurprising end. Here, boys are boys and they do not for the most part mix with girls and these girls (there are at least two, including the main protagonist, the CIA operative Maya interpreted by Jessica Chastain in an uneven performance) want to be tight knot and bundle in the film complicity of the dirty handkerchief with them. Mono-perspectivism bears this out. This film is Polyphemus’ one-eye, the roving eye of the liberal Leviathan in an early morning raid in a foreign country with a distinct mission that will not stop to contemplate international-law niceties, that is for others. So, let us keep this desired indifference in mind also in relation to the tears in the good-looking face of the female protagonist in the final scene of Zero Dark Thirty which I will cover in the end of this review. Some interchange can happen with the cynical smile of the main protagonist in the bomb suit in Hurt Locker.


I would argue accordingly that Zero Dark Thirty is mostly about the visual limits of American liberal democratic internationalism, which can be claimed to be the dominant Obama ideology of foreign affairs, side by side the stronger normality of “realism,” at least according to Tony Smith. Bruni’s aforementioned article speaks of some initial collaboration between the Obama team and Bigelow’s, and some Republican skepticism, and how the film turns out to be less liberal than expected. I suppose less liberal has to be understood in the less propagandistic sense of the term and it makes you wonder what good liberal and good propaganda would then be, perhaps ask Tony Smith who also keeps his distance from Princeton liberals, in the current times in which we live: and what about a little visual criticism functioning within conventional venues that keeps the whole wide frame of geopolitics under wraps? I think the film remains conventionally liberal in the sense of the Tony Smith’s initial quotes. The cumulative effect is liberal, tough liberal if you wish, and I agree with those protesters who outside the movie theater were handing out flyers transcending the CIA view of the world (worldcanwait.net). I want to take both, mass-culture visual forms and its ideology equally seriously holding the burning candle of Tony Smith’s America’s Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy (Princeton UP, [1994] 2012). Zero Dark Thirty is mediocre film about such complications that will not go away soon. Smith’s is ambitious and finally profoundly disorienting scholarship in that it remains equally critical of Wilsonian flaws, marks differences with some neo-Wilsonian Obamians against “realism,” and yet the wide world does not emerge meaningfully in relation to the re-signification of democracy not always already in the vicinity of state security (I have written a somewhat detailed piece about it, see “Sobre la Crisis Oficial de la Política Exterior Estadounidense en las Primeras Décadas del Nuevo Siglo” (Nuevo Texto Crítico,  2010, Vol. XXIII, No. 45/46; pp. 15-39). Some of this remains ideologically significant in Zero Dark Thirty and in a terrible fashion.  Zero Dark Thirty shares the same ideological universe as American liberal democratic internationalism.

Zero Dark Thirty - Jessica Chastain

And it is within and against these limits and limitations that we must operate, at least occasionally, whether popular visual culture or more minority enclaves of the cultures of historical scholarship. Smith wants to occupy a revitalization of the position that puts the U.S. as cause of democracy promotion in foreign parts, as though the venerable name “democracy” was ipso facto immediately understood by everyone and needed no exegesis, much less comparative studies and area-study relations, also as though the cause-effect could not happen differently, always with the U.S. as cause and the rest of the world as effect, and pause for a minute at the disequilibrium in the magnitude in the equation, and you may perhaps arrive flat-out in grand fashion, call it xenophilic, to the possibility that exotic literatures and foreign languages and cultures may indeed also as well educate the democratic sensibility of the natives over here. There is absolutely none of a scintillating, titillating foreignness in both films by Bigelow, which remain Americanist in all (bad) senses of the word, thus comparable to Smith’s closeness of the “idealist” neo-Wilsonian wing of the American mind.


The distinction of idealist and realist schools of thought may lose compelling force from a certain critical distance that puts national security within larger political frames. Difficult to say where Bigelow’s artistic vision lies here and whether it really matters in the production of visual thrillers. Growing into the job, Maya gets the job done. That is what matters. I would argue that this is fundamentally the message of Zero Dark Thirty. And you may grit your teeth and the interpellation is accordingly, and are you down with it? I do not have to tell you that this is a horrendously complicated matter to handle publicly in the current moment in the U.S. The film helps pushing the inquisitive cart a bit further, a liberal bit further, with some lights and shadows, light art and darkness, which may be an awful lot if you happen to look at it, film and world, from a rigid all-American and unintelligent American-only world-island. You will agree with me that there is an awful lot of that of this thick peanut-butter jingoism sandwich in the popular culture and academic culture with realist and idealist modulations.


Tony Smith, still a solid, respectable scholar of latitude and ample vision not automatically hijacked by automatic state interests, underlines the inherited vagueness and the thinness of American liberal democratic internationalism, which is a very good step towards self-criticism. Yet, his core appears to remain on national security –isn’t this the same one in Bigelow’s military films?– and therefore on state structures accordingly, not quite put out there significantly to air. There is some “air” in Zero Dark Thirty but perhaps not enough and I am willing to grant my reader the tremendous limitations inside the U.S. about these matters. Discourse is thick and soldiers defend your freedom and try to deviate from this narrative in public and see how far you go. So there is some deviation here, but not much. . Tony Smith’s surprising final question in America’s Mission as included before is about the possibility of mating “intelligence” and Marxism, and he provides a list of mostly American names (p. 467). Is this incongruence since he provided shortcomings of previous Marxism? But he continues advocating the Wilsonian vision? Is this provocation towards some daring openness? I can’t really say. And yet it is my wish to put this element of “danger” side by side the limits of such American ideology also defended by Smith near Bigelow’s calculated vagueness, also by the producer and writer Boal’s, apropos the rather mediocre film Zero Dark Thirty. This mediocrity constitutes our contemporaneity whether we like it or not mostly in the U.S. Let us not leave it alone accordingly.

Tony Smith America's Mission


Zero Dark Thirty is Visuality of Imperial America.


Zero Dark Thirty is visuality of imperial America with the relative difference of the woman exception, director and protagonist, within if not against a mostly male universe of film-making and film-making about state violence at least in the last two films Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. The genre is quasi-documentary, but without pushing the boundaries. There is some investigative reporting and some perhaps exceptional access to intelligence units, but nothing in my opinion that can cause major upheavals apropos major narratives. The emphasis is obviously on contemporary events, almost chasing the headlines of the chase of the most wanted. Hence some Hollywood superlative must be assumed ever so naturally. Why else the focus on the manhunt of Bin Laden at this juncture in between the two terms of Obama, one may legitimately wonder against what type of landscape of vision, perhaps erosion of the U.S. ideals, even Empire, erosion of a Eurocentric teleology of modernity or erosion of an Euro-American political economic power, which are two dimensions, too big for the film in question to handle. Yet, Zero Dark Thirty is, in essence, concrete truth on the ground; forget big geopolitics. This is about the attempt of the protagonist to push the state machine to get the bad, and it is symbol of badness, and the attempt is to make it a thriller, an action movie, always scrupulously from the perspective of the goodness of Empire, inevitably with a few bad things attached to the endeavor, but again since there is structural under-developed badness of bad guys out there, filmically speaking, there is no counter-point to add to the intersecting lines of goodness and badness. That is part of the thrill of Bigelow’s film-making. And you are asked to join in with or without second thoughts. So, yes, please, bring them all with you.


The gist of the message: whatever it takes. This is close-up camera-angle follow-up of U.S. intelligence officials without the need to do big geopolitical flights of fancy. The film centers on Maya, the camera lingering on her white alert, focused and concentrated face in front of a computer screen, the lovely red-hair against the skin or the shirt or the shoulders, pursuing information, getting acquainted with torture procedures, holding the position, toughening it out, never getting any fun, nothing but mission accomplished surrounded by the guys. Woman is good catalyst of the goodness of the mission in Zero Dark Thirty. You will see previews during the American-football playoffs and the images will be of special forces playing horseshoe and of the final nighttime raid on Bin Laden’s compound. She is therefore something of a cheer-leader to the military mission and here the explicit political language in the film is redolent of American lazy lip. No ambiguity: spectators get to see the scenes from the perspective of U.S. soldiers. The night time raid has a game quality to it. And you know the ending.  The very bad guy is barely seen when he is already fallen, and captured and taken in some bag, a piece of fabric here, a piece of beard there, a fast glimpse at the nostrils. No evil eyes, much less language and being a 29-year-old Sikh Londoner called Ricky S. Sekhon helps if you play it (“Being Bin Laden,” www.nytimes.com/2013/01/17/opinion/i-played-osama-bin-laden-in-zero-dark-thirty.html?_r=0). This “evil” is very conventional Hollywood genre of the barely developed human alien dimension vividly on display, but fleetingly so. The raid has some messy quality, helicopter goes down, children and women are shot, but the cumulative effect is one of mission accomplished. Maya, almost like an angel, supervises the dirty deed, from the distance. The soldiers slap each other upon the return and the “girl” –she is addressed as such— is the one who verifies the identity of the “catch,” kept off-camera for the comfort of the viewers, and the official who is nearby is thus confirming the identities on the phone to POTUS. Dirty deed is done: fundamental message of Zero Dark Thirty.


Now what? There are several points. White supremacy is one and the adjective has to be understood in the same way as the latest Census. Filmic white element is dominant feature fighting against a non-white dimension, and the second film is identical to the first, the geopolitical color line white and American and perhaps also Western by implication, and who doubts that this is the conventional edifice of our visual culture entertainment of explicit political nature. Zero Dark Thirty does not move an inch further, no internationalization here of perspectivism, thank you very much, for example in the torture scenes, the dealings of the protagonist, or the final raid, or culmination, and the point of it is that we have to approach such encounters from the standpoint of whiteness always, but also of state officialdom and of Americanness in dangerous geographies and there is no attempt at any exploration of any political bit of information that may cause some self-reflexivity (zero soliloquies and precious little dialogue that gives more latitude or greater context to the heroine, who suffers the death of a comrade). There is zero perspectivism of the other side of the state structure so to speak. It is utterly immaterial. There is no curiosity to explore the foreign geographies of human endeavor that rise up to challenge such sophisticated state machinery. Zero Dark Thirty narrows down and naturalizes, i.e. individualizes, and even feminizes the state terrorism of state structures. There is torture but there is also the nocturnal raid into another nation’s national sovereignty, and one can add extraordinary renditions, detentions in undisclosed locations, commando activity, drones, etc. It must immediately be underlined that the term “state terrorism” remains uncommon term and “un-American” even among your smart college friends who took advantage of liberal private education in the arts and sciences inside selective pockets of privilege in the contemporary U.S. and who doubts that the visual misery of Zero Dark Thirty has to do with no daring to speak a stronger visual  language in the conventional American idiom precisely at the historical and social high point of intense exception, call it Carl-Schmittian if you wish. The America of Zero Dark Thirty is the only game in the global town and it is all work and officialdom visually speaking and its vague, self-doubting and even occasional remorseful mood is also self-serving self-pity, retroactively feeding its brutal isolation from a rich universe of multiple perspectives on these horrid deeds.  Americanism here is exception, and a thriller of one, to the theoretical universal applicability of international-law regulations. Allegorically speaking, the red-hair, white-beautiful and workaholic young female protagonist seating alone, mission accomplished, in the big military plane taking off to where?, with tears rolling down her cheeks: Bigelow’s Obama’s America doing awful things out there? But it can mean other things. Relief, release and outlet: I finally did it! I am a strong girl and I am out of here! And even “fuck them,” the pronoun having a few candidates (men, the enemy, the hell of others, all those opposing my wishes)! And why should you bite the emotional bait and emote along those female tears in the end?


Or are you going to privilege the “woman” solidarity card? And how would this work? It would be, for example, truly obscene to pick and choose the “woman” feature in a context such as Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s rendition flights  by Trevor Paglen and A.C. Thompson (Hoboken, New Jersey: Melville House Publishing, 2006) includes at least two, a “Sarah” and “a white female with glasses, 5’6’’, short, blue eyes” who takes photos of those tortured and who could be our stand-in for Maya, a generic gender type of forceful dedication to the tough mission in question (pp. 26-8). Zero Dark Thirty seeks your complicity with Maya: no ambiguity here. Do you think we are meant to empathize with the lives lost in the raid? Are these grievable lives inside these frames of war thrill –I am recreating the title of an excellent mediation by Judith Butler– in the ideological frame of this film? What is the hierarchy built in? It is easy to see. Start putting the features besides “woman” therefore (young white American woman in the military doing covert operations inside a predominantly white male social circle of relative power and privilege, etc.).


One more time: Bigelow’s declarations along the lines that showing torture is of course not the same thing as endorsing it is of course right, but it is so, side by side her calculated no-pronouncements of the conflicts at large, for all the wrong reasons in the context of her own film in fundamental coherence with the previous one, Hurt Locker. As Zizek has written, imagine how we would react to calculated gestures of neutrality if there was a brutal rape scene of a (white) woman in foreign parts and the director claimed neutrality in the filmic approach, play with gender pronouns for greater effect and intensity (“Zero Dark Thirty: Hollywood’s gift to American power,” (www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jan/25/zero-dark-thirty-normalises-torture-unjustifiable). News of a brutal rape in India made it to the international headlines during the release dates of the film. Imagine statements of scrupulous neutrality about undesirables (pick your most odious group) expressing themselves forcefully. So, one must consider the tense climate in the U.S. for showing such material, the understandable self-defense mechanism by the director and the producer, particularly when attacked, who in essence deliver platitudes about multiplicity of perspectives, and generic repudiations of torture in the abstract and a calculated neutrality and vagueness about large geopolitical issues not filmed and left discursively for a better time and place but not here and now.  There is something of a thinness of discourse that is quintessential to the film, subtracting discursivity as it were, and the director’s explicit framing of the film as though “[we] were working with pieces of a puzzle whose final composition escaped [us],” and I am recreating Tony Smith advisedly, changing the directionality of the pronouns, hitting home so to speak, to illustrate better the ideological thesis of the fundamental liberal complicity at stake here. I am not suggesting any kind of cheap pedagogic moralism in matters of art and politics. Yet, Zero Dark Thirty remains in the end, to me at least, unfortunately vague in the liberal sense of the term. Bigelow’s vague treatment of the problem of power, and grotesque abuse of power at that, happens not to merit a fierce interrogation either, and thus the whole topic of (state) power remains, oddly enough, oblique.


Zero Dark Thirty is thus about the quintessential bildungsroman of the single young woman wanting a piece of it. A dutiful Cinderella story –and what is foreground and what is background?– in which the protagonist cannot “have fun” after all? Is there something of a sacrificial insinuation –hard-working white American woman being put down by the necessities of the law, strategy and the transformations of the state in a Hobbesian vision that would have pleased Philip Bobbitt (www.fernandogomezherrero.com/blog/?p=457)? And how fast do you think we are going to leave behind all those dark faces and bodies speaking in foreign tongues and clad in burqas, etc.? The most dynamic scene in the film has to do with the subterfuge of covert agent donning burqas. This scene was selected for previews of the film that show well during football-game breaks. The marketing of Zero Dark Thirty has an upbeat quality like a bunch of guys throwing a horseshoe, or a football, in a beach-like, desert location out there. There is something of an attractive, rough, disheveled, beard-look to the special-forces men. There are there for you, fighting for your freedom, doing what it takes, no questions asked, going into the compound not knowing who will be inside. You want to join them and be a man with them. Tellingly, there is one poster-like scene with Maya in dark glasses smiling amused at their pranks.


Viewers are thus meant to participate in US-official proceedings and join in and stay in the room and shout at the prisoner to behave accordingly and to tell the truth. Maya learns fast, like a little girl telling the weaker guy that he should tell the big guy in charge what he wants. This is the torture scene. When there is confirmation that he will never get out of this situation, why bother cover the heads, let that red-hair shine on you. Yes, this is all work ethic –also in the torture chamber– and no fun as when the fellow female agent who is enjoying her wine glass asks Maya if she has already hooked up with the male fellow agent with cute messed-up hair, who was part of the enforced interrogation technique. No, she demurs. She is all business, a steel magnolia, and this is what Jessica Winter highlights about Bigelow as well (Time Magazine: “Art of Darkness: How Zero Dark Thirty Director Kathryn Bigelow Made the Year’s Most Controversial movie,” Vol. 181, No. 4, 2013). There is something of a cardboard morality of intent, an ideological, political rigidity in the quintessential solitary American heroine with precious little context, society or background. Maya is deliberately kept thin. There is no thick texture to her and this is how Bigelow wanted her role model, not far away from Gary Cooper in High Noon. Our American heroes do not, cannot, will not have fun, neither our unsung heroines. Zero Dark Thirty is something of a small recognition of such heroism, the small or big difference the woman factor makes inside the Bobbittian transformation of the state, and the vicarious enjoyment of a thriller and action movie around awful geopolitical dimensions in faraway locations accordingly. It would have been much more potent to have had less desert and more American geography, possibly close to the island of Cuba, but Paglen and Thompson help us with routes of rendition flights across many other locations. In relation to state, think the other side of pretty. In relation to the sole standing superpower of a state, what do you think?

torture taxi

With or without protestations of the director and the producer, Zero Dark Thirty is a general invitation to a perverse participation in the exercise of cruelty reaching the ultimate destruction of who else but the ultimate evil doer, in the institutional sadism engaging a foreignness kept at some distance while the camera gives flesh to male abuse and keeps the female second banana nearby (announcement that women could serve in combat roles just happened, and I am sure that such news will make some happy, perhaps even Bigelow and I have not heard any comments in this regard, www.washingtonpost.com/local/women-say-they-already-serve-in-combat-roles-despite-pentagons-announcement/2013/01/26/738c4c4a-6705-11e2-93e1-475791032daf_story.html). I personally hold no fundamental uncertainties that Zero Dark Thirty is embedded ideological combat role for the woman difference on the side of American Empire. It matters little to me if such difference is here big or small. Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib are recent references and the viewer will likely find like I did that there was something of an overlap between images in the film and other images one may have seen elsewhere about such atrocities and current conflicts in the Middle East, largely kept out of mass-media outlets circulating in the U.S. Just imagine if Maya had turned Lynndie England, and had held a leash attached to the prisoner, had grabbed the balls of the prisoner, had made him do something disagreeable, had used an intimidating dog, had taken photographs of the abuse, had urinated on the sacred book of religious rules, etc. There is coyness here: “our” women are tough but not disagreeably tough, that is for men, and this is clear case of male supremacy informing beginning and end of Zero Dark Thirty. There is water-boarding and yet there is some weird restraint. We are not taking the full scene. The camera is close-up on the face of the prisoner. It would have been much difficult to watch it from some outside observer taking all the bodies interacting in the cell. That proximity of camera angle also wants our participation in what is going on. Using a soccer analogy, we run typically in the film with the ball too close to our good foot and not like good players do which is knowing at all times where their team mates are and who is better situated to receive the ball and keep it running. Bigelow is not that good of a player or a film maker to even dare want to give an ambitious vision of policy, politics and geopolitics (one scene has Obama speaking on television about Americans not torturing people and the operatives dead-pan). I would expand this dead-pan quality, with or without the final tears coming in a second, to cover the entire Zero Dark Thirty as a sign of political vagueness and thinness, call it conventionally U.S. liberal. Maya loses her temper once I think with one superior who does not let her be herself in the pursuit of her mission and this demonstration of character is probably the worst acting on the part of the otherwise competent and certainly attractive Jessica Chastain. No use of religion, profanity, no display of genitalia. Little urban landscapes. Some desert. There is, how not?, hipness to the military action scenes, no wonder preview material, and we all cheer internally almost like good parents when the female agent expresses confidence in the all-male conference room, she is the “motherfucker,” no pun intended, no one laughs, and that she is 99% certain that the bad guy is in the compound, when she addresses the all-male soldiers about the mission. She does not throw a horseshoe, spit tobacco or drink liquor, even fuck, excuse my French, one of those good American men, but she should have. No release. No outlet. No truth? The final tears I have already mentioned could go many places. In this tough context, why should one be forced to assume the final true emotion in the tears of an individual woman? And what is the perspective of the omniscient, exterior camera telling us now? There is an off-camera voice asking where to go. Suggestion: nowhere. It does not matter. Any place but here and here means that foreign location or anyplace but here of gross violation of civil rights and human rights. Rest assured: Zero Dark Thirty is interplay of US-agent perspective and omniscient, exterior camera and never foreign, much less bad-guy perspective.

1134604 - Zero Dark Thirty


Probably the best thing out of Zero Dark Thirty will be the stir of discourse in the public pot. With the increasing evacuation of critical intelligence in university structures, dramatically so in the foreign humanities, where are they in relation to these matters?, a few good articles can easily be found in various outlets. Predictably, the U.S. ones are the ones more predictable inside the liberal ideological neutrality affiliation, for example, the already mentioned by Jessica Winter in Time Magazine (Vol. 181, No. 4, 2013). There is something of a rigid identity of the “we” –us qua the U.S., and nothing but the U.S., us seduced by the state, but also some woman solidarity, us white American women doing tough things out there against non-white, non-American not directly against women… if I may put it that way– that will not break open and go unhinged sociologically and politically, as it should. A second example: ‘Zero Dark Thirty:’ Kathryn Bigelow Shows us the Things We Carried” by Susan Zakin, seemingly blinded by the sole example of top female accomplishment in the tough Hollywood industry (www.truthdig.com/arts_culture/item/zero_dark_thirty_kathryn_bigelow_shows_us_the_things_we_carried_20130111). And who wants to stick the nose predictably to one national leash anymore? Get out if you can. Compare and contrast with “Dark, zero-feminism” by Zilla Eisenstein, which has more bite (www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/01/2013120121530123614.html), and even with “Dirty Wars: Jeremy Scahill’s antidote to Zero Dark Thirty’s heroic narrative,” (www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jan/28/dirty-wars-jeremy-scahill-zero-dark-thirty?INTCMP=SRCH). Yes, the heroism remains in the end and we can discuss how much dirtiness goes with it. Yet it appears that our version of heroics in the early 21st Century is more like the hardened effort of a dedicated athlete than anything else. Our time is the time of Lance Armstrong already caught. There is something of a feeling of the “competition” being rigged and politics being very dirty, but we know this at least since Machiavelli’s times. The point is to historicize it and to see how much of it we wish to know and what to do with it once we are in the know. Hence, what I would call the general tone of seriousness of purpose, and the narrow-focus on the female protagonist, in Bigelow’s craftsmanship –typically in close-ups of head and shoulders, much less the whole body in camera, makes Maya look like a studious graduate student– does not press buttons, does not “radicalize” and fleshes out what is in essence a generic type, and hence fails to satisfy visually and intellectually. And what else is different to say about the other characters?


But continue looking, and you will find more freeplay information, still playing off both sides of the English-speaking pond, still in The Guardian. Nothing of it circulates inside the U.S., much more ideologically rigid, still in my experience:  ”A Letter to Kathryn Bigelow on Zero Dark Thirty’s Apology for Torture” (www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jan/04/letter-kathryn-bigelow-zero-dark-thirty). “By peddling the lie that CIA detentions led to Bin Laden’s killing, you have become a Leni Riefenstahl-like propagandist for torture.” The provocation is well taken. And how endearing does the director come across in the interviews defending her turf?: “Kathyrn Bigelow: Under Fire” (www.guardian.co.uk/film/2013/jan/12/kathryn-bigelow-zero-dark-thrity?INTCMP=SRCH). The defense strategy appears to be not to stir the big spoon inside the hot pot too much. Perhaps we will all be able to do this in a few years.

bigelow in 1989 on the set of her third feature blue steel

Stepping outside English-language circles momentarily, I will end with the disorientations of the otherwise dignified Literature Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa,“Apogeo y Decadencia de Occidente (elpais.com/elpais/2013/01/10/opinion/1357832274_367312.html):

¿Ha desaparecido el espíritu crítico en la frívola y desbaratada cultura occidental de nuestros días? Yo terminé de leer el libro de Niall Ferguson el mismo día que fui al cine, aquí en New York, a ver la película Zero Dark Thirty, de Kathryn Bigelow, extraordinaria obra maestra que narra con minuciosa precisión y gran talento artístico la búsqueda, localización y ejecución de Osama bin Laden por la CIA. Todo está allí: las torturas terribles a los terroristas para arrancarles una confesión; las intrigas, las estupideces y la pequeñez mental de muchos funcionarios del gobierno; y también, claro, la valentía y el idealismo con que otros, pese a los obstáculos burocráticos, llevaron a cabo esa tarea. Al terminar este film genial y atrozmente autocrítico, los centenares de neoyorquinos que repletaban la sala se pusieron de pie y aplaudieron a rabiar; a mi lado, había algunos espectadores que lloraban. Allí mismo pensé que Niall Ferguson se equivocaba, que la cultura occidental tiene todavía fuelle para mucho rato.


“Have we already seen the disappearance of the critical spirit from a broken Western civilization of frivolity? The same day I finished reading Niall Ferguson’s last book I went to see in New York Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, an extraordinary masterpiece that narrates the manhunt and killing of Osama bin Laden by the CIA. Everything is there: the terrible tortures to get a confession out of the terrorists, the intrigues, the stupidities and small-mindedness of many state officials and also the courage and idealism of those who complete their task despite all bureaucratic obstacles. At the end of this superb film, also extraordinarily self-critical, the hundreds of New Yorkers who crowded the movie theater stood up and gave it a sound round of applause; some spectators were crying nearby. There and then I thought Niall Ferguson was wrong, and Western civilization still has plenty of wind in its tail for a while” (my translation).


I could not disagree more with Vargas Llosa’s poor film-studies interpretation, which is still ideologically congruent with his major Western geopolitical focus, properly toeing the line of American liberal democratic internationalism. Again, the dutiful seriousness of specific purpose of Bigelow is emphatically not expansive critical visual intelligence of geopolitics. But, what is the purpose, really? And your literary-criticism educational upbringing is asking this question not wanting cheap (American) moralism, and much less a straight-forward declaration of individual intent on the part of the author, which will never be taken at face value. There is, I defend, something horrendously predictable about the manhunt that does not quite bring it up to make it into a good thriller. There was no climax to what had not been a good intercourse and make it as dirty as you wish, politically speaking. The very bad guy, indeed the most wanted by the Good Empire, has no bone, blood, life animation in him. The film avoids the evil eyes. There is a quick glimpse of the bearded chin as he is already in the bag. There is facial hair emphasis all over Zero Dark Thirty and this is some un-American feature that makes the film look a bit foreign, attractive hirsute quality of the special forces included. Yet, the Manicheanism is under-developed and finally anemic and just for a minute imagine the explosiveness of its opposite, the giving of life to the political force of sustained contestation of state terrorism. Foreignness is nothing else but body to be tortured or target to be shot at in the night raid. There is collateral damage in these women and children, but no effort whatsoever to give us a bit of development to any of these challenges to official and institutional, read, state-mediated American national identity as presently constituted (we may wish to remember what the great Raúl Ruiz has criticized about this Hollywood convention, the immensely predictable single-minded pursuit of conflict theory resolution, Zero Dark Thirty is all about this, with the phantasmagoria of the very bad and foreign guy on top).


But the gist of the film is, in hindsight, the single-focus dedication and pure pursuit of the woman, put generic type Maya here. The core is about what the woman wants. Feel good about putting foreignness in the background. And what does she want, we may wish to ask with or without Freud, who also had a beard and moustache and a few things about conscious and unconscious impulses? She wants is to be celebrated part of the state machinery, not matter what and doing what it takes. I feel like going for the exchange Maya and Bigelow, don’t you? Bigelow, and many others with her, will not go further, and probably cannot, pressing the buttons of the Tony Smith criticism of American liberal democratic internationalism with which this article opened up. And how many “good guys and gals” trying to make a living in the U.S. inside and outside the film industry would you say could and would? Unlike bad girls in the film noir era, Maya is no juicy role, cool, calculating gal in a B-picture exploring the dark side of (political) life, who could stick a knife in a man’s back and make him like it, and you bet I get the prose from some colorful dvd jacket. I confess to liking Maya somewhat. I confess to liking Bigelow somewhat. There is strategic coyness and even timidity, also complicity, in Zero Dark Thirty with ominous state structures as though one had to try hard, really hard, and do really nasty things, to get the approval that will not come. For all the woman dimension, there is also rigidity and diffidence, and male-supremacy underpinning the portrayal of Maya, a vagueness, a thinness, almost Cinderella type, making the most out of things and making do in the end since the real deed in the night hour is done by the men out there. Is she foreground and main story or background to the “greatest manhunt in history” as the poster advertising of Zero Dark Thirty declares oblivious of any insinuation of moderation and proportionality? But, contextualization and proportionality, historical cognitive mapping and relativity of the US in the first place, are not the main issue here. The main issue appears to be a relatively banal one: the generic typecast feminization of individual pursuit in a tough, though man’s world out there. In times of interlacing of global boundaries, bring it all home, man’s world also in here. My praise to Bigelow is largely for not smiling too much and yet I am not with her liking her wholeheartedly. Her film-making does not win me over to her side visually, much less politically. Repetition: given the increasing evacuation of critical intelligence inside university structures, almost anything would do, a thriller, an umbrella, a sunflower, the baking of a shoe instead of steak.  What does not kill you will have to feed you. The next one by Bigelow will be nicer.

The New York Film Critics Circle Awards

By Fernando Gómez Herrero, fgh2173@gmail.com