Archive for January 2013

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 (

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,  ( 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 ( 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,” 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,” ( 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 ( 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, 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 ( 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 (, and even with “Dirty Wars: Jeremy Scahill’s antidote to Zero Dark Thirty’s heroic narrative,” ( 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” ( “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” ( 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 (

¿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,

On Immanuel Wallerstein’s Uncertainties of Knowledge.

On Immanuel Wallerstein’s Uncertainties of Knowledge.

By Fernando Gómez Herrero,


The modern world-system, the capitalist world-economy, is in crisis. We no longer know it. It presents to us unfamiliar landscapes and uncertain horizons. The modern structures of knowledge, the division of knowledge into two competing epistemological spheres of the sciences and the humanities, is in crisis. We can no longer use them as adequate ways in which to gain knowledge of the world. We are confused by our inability to know, in both senses [know as to be acquainted with, cognoscere, conocer connaitre, kennen and know as to understand, scire, saber, savoir, wissen], and many fall back on dogmatisms. We are living in the eye of the hurricane (pp. 49-50).

uncertainties of knowledge

I will not hesitate to come out and say my admiration for Immanuel Wallerstein. Every since graduate school at Duke University in the mid-1990s, his scholarship has been a strong point of intellectual stimulation and needling provocation. I have specifically in mind the slim text The Uncertainties of Knowledge (2004), dedicated to Ilya Prigogine (“scientist, humanist, scholar”) who died the previous year. How often do you get to see that triple praise? The predominant lexicon is one of tentativeness. The mood, cautious. Yet, there is no timidity marching through the tulips, the freeways and the institutions. Quite the opposite, the fundamental call is for the social sciences to be written in the past tense (p. 138), for the discipline of “history” to unlearn bad habits, to start anew (p. 116). This is permanent critique of academic reason in complicity with larger social and political forces: multi-disciplinarity is empire of sand “for today our disciplines are reduced to sand” (p. 117). Doubling the initial quote:

end of the world


I see [our present reality] as primarily one in which the historical system in which we have been living, the capitalist world-economy, is in crisis and therefore is facing a bifurcation… I see the present intellectual crisis as reflecting the structural crisis of the system… [whether] this evolutionary turning point at which we are located will be one for the better or for the worse (p. 125).


Think of bifurcation in drastic terms more like a rough deal cut by irreconcilable positions, a bad split, rather than gentle departing each one on one side of the fork of the road hoping to reunite and be merry soon around some resolution, holiday or synthesis. The negative term, uncertainty, is here enthroned with no nostalgias for its positivity, and precarity takes the limelight, when “garbage contract,” perhaps the neologism is needed in the American English, or even “mini-jobs” are like the dirty sun to which the sunflowers must turn, and there is no glimpse of rainbow in the horizon. Current academic conditioning in the U.S. should put you therefore in a good receptive mood, especially with the additional baggage, call it “cultural,” the cat licking the whiskers of the immigrant experience, the foreign humanities, side by side functional bilingualism and even recent naturalization. Two decades later, this has not been love at first sight. And one must look forward to the next two.



In what follows I will do a re-telling of Uncertainties of Knowledge chewing the cod and pulling my ear, whispering into it how epistemic and social things have developed and how we may go about it in the uncertain future. “If you see something, say something,” as the “security” sign commands good citizens, pregnant conditional, particularly when the message is challenging. Will you get to see it and say it? And will you get to understand what you think you see? Wallerstein (1930-) tells us the end of the world as we know it is near, and there is expectation in the saying, even when feelings of expansiveness are hard to come by. Heads of tails and the coin is high in the sky. There is trepidation and apprehension. Uncertainty, therefore, will not drop its prefix easily from now on. And “intelligence” –and I do not simply mean the proper strategic maneuvering of state officials—and the affections wrapped up around it will have to change accordingly, and who doubts the mood is but somber?, lest we miss the ideal possibility of more determined efforts and better captures. I will highlight key findings in the said text and add connections and implications along the way.


Uncertainties of Knowledge opens up with an emphasis on temporality. It is time that matters mostly, and the de-emphasis on space or geography is perceptible (there is a certain naturalization, or narrow focus, of the Franco-German First World of the Enlightenment legacy that reaches us today, such is the charge in relation to the fourth volume of The Modern World-System dealing with what is called the centrist liberalism triumphant, 1789-1914; Jennifer Pitts’s “A liberal geoculture?,” New Left Review Nov./ Dec. 2012, pp. 136-144). The dimensions are obviously monumental and hesitations about the term “geoculture” will recur. Let me anticipate that the term “culture” is in a strong sense the bracketing of universalist constructions and yet Wallerstein would not let go of that entirely.

uncertainties cloud

But there is no mistake about our inevitable present. It is, besides messy, slippery, mercurial, supremely evanescent, just try to catch it with your fingers, also in relation to past and future. Changeability and mutability and the “wave of disillusionment about the future,” that is what characterizes our present, according to Wallerstein. Would you say otherwise? The proposal is “to take uncertainty as a basic building block of our systems of knowledge” in ways that are “inherently approximate and certainly non deterministic” (p. 3). Notions such as “reality” and “knowledge” are not denied. They get caught up in the workable paste, the mortar, of this ingrained uncertainty: this is the life juice animating the limbs of the aforementioned love affair, and so we must work through, without ever leaving it behind for other better, more rotund things. If this feels sour sweet, no big bang, no badda bing, badda boom, no big cause, no teleology, Wallerstein adds that this is not necessarily a bad thing when you come to think of it from other angles, the ones provided by the “new science” being proposed. The predilection for the language of “system” is one hint against the proliferation of historicisms, personified in Robert Darnton (pp. 63-4, 68). Uncertainties of Knowledge is reconstruction task (p. 147) and this review is summary of it.


Wallerstein registers a fracture in the dominant model of the natural sciences, undeniably since the 1980s and possibly before that. His academic lifetime begins in the 1950s in the context of sociology at Columbia University, and his projection is hence the 1960s onwards, the 1970s acting as a kind of peak in confidence of the social studies inside the institutional peak of university structures going down ever since. So, this is our forty-year luck, which is still ambitious vision of what he likes calling “historical social systems” (p. 148). Any construction of a truth, any truth claim, has a social texture embedded in it, which is no optional, detachable background, or “mere” context, ad hoc stage, theater, or appendage, res extensa where other more important, “ideal” stuff happens, and how to separate easily skin, bone and flesh, reason and emotion, periphery and core in systemic relations, think of “the social” instead closer to the sentient ocean or the forbidden zone in Andrei Tarkovsky’s films, or even some form of meaningful, inevitable, desirable circumstance for a salvific existential historicism, and think again how uneasy, if not ugly general things look in the early decades of the new century. Wallerstein is good company to keep since these dilemmas you do not wish them away.

world systems analysis

The “new science” being defended in Uncertainties of Knowledge has to account for the social history of that truth claim combining an affinity, or “culture,” a sociability, even an ethnicity, with all its political interests. Knowledge practices such as theology, philosophy and what Wallerstein calls “folk wisdom,” are historically cornered by epistemic successes internal to the natural sciences,  which has managed to put on the table theses such as the nonexistence of universal truth, the uncertainty principle, the relativism, total or gradual, that gains distance from the notion of objectivity away from deterministic “fundamentalisms.” Truth is conceptualized as a series of approximations, yet in what type of diagram?, an Escher drawing perhaps?, by theoretical f bifurcation breaking into non-singular coexistence in different realms, levels or dimensions of truth, but the final singular solution appears increasingly like an impossible creature, even undesirable in its universalism traveling undisturbed through timespaces, think of an incongruous Borgesian creation, a fetish, a chimera, a mirage, a unicorn. With “objectivity” in question marks, while pressing the (inter-)subjectivity of all knowledge assertions, Wallerstein will not settle for what appears to be a theoretical “culturalism” (perhaps idiographic knowledge is an entirely valid synonym) however: there is no way around the engagement with the philosophical premises of our scientific activity and the larger social and political implications informing the structures of knowledge. There is reluctance in Wallerstein to go “post-structuralism,” the word is largely missing, although there is some sympathy and desire to join forces with the proponents of “cultural studies.” Knowledge and institutionality go hand in hand: the truth of the truism will be kept active in all knowledge proposals and how our predicament has geocultural implications. Epistemologies necessitate organizations inside which structures will have to exist, and one must also imagine transformations, debilitations, destructurations and de-institutionalization. The early 21st Century is caught up in all these plurals, like a bird in lime twigs, virtual and otherwise.

Immanuel Wallerstein2


Wallerstein does not hesitate to attack what he calls “scientism” (p. 13); that is, science understood as disinterested and extra-social. In other words, knowledge is not some self-contained and self-containing “world island” in and of itself traveling unimpeded from one timespace to another timespace to the marvel and applause of myriad natives seeking knowledge for knowledge’s sake (I am using in quotation marks a historic expression originally coming from the international-relations field). Yet in another way, knowledge production always already obeys political forces, has interests and it is intrinsically contextual, it is also inextricably emerging from a concrete context or interplay of social forces. Another way of saying this is that knowledge is political through and through, in all the senses of the quarrelsome adjective you can imagine (inside a political setting, tense, turgid, confrontational, embedded in a hierarchy, more or less convincingly institutionalized, with more or less awareness of preceding dimensions, etc.). Advocating the figure of the “intelligently concerned scientist,” Wallerstein is vocally clear about suspending the relative disinteredness of the science. This does not resolve into subjectivism or relativism, and much less on “presentism,” since there is a world outside and the world outside is partially known and the emphasis is here on duration, or Braudelian longue durée. There is the affirmation in Uncertainties of Knowledge of a thick texture of a mutational world and of the necessity for big frames of cognition and intelligibility that do not have to yield necessarily always to the immediate pressures of officialdom. There are myriad interests and norms, and power differentials: scientists operating within institutions do tend to come from socially dominant strata worldwide (p. 10), but there is no inevitable cause-effect Foucaultanism that asserts that knowledge has to follow up, be tied up, broken down, supremely subservient and always blindly seduced by power. Wallerstein wants other things and his restiveness remains immensely seductive, to me at least.


Early 21st century finds itself wagging the tail of a long process of epistemologically unified knowledge, call it Western, and one beginning date suggested is, always according to our author, the 1750-1850 in which the divorce between “science” and what he calls “philosophy” comes into effect. The world system may begin in the 16th century, that is the meaning of Charles V (pp. 139-141), but the knowledge area that matters to Wallerstein kicks in 350 years later, coalescing around the 1970s in the Western institutionalizations of the social sciences feeling the pinch of the natural-science successes with the “humanities” moving snail-like, these are currently being “barely tolerated” (p. 72) and you may want to update your Marcuse in relation to our contemporary varieties of repressive tolerance. Science emerged as the only legitimate path to truth and truth understood along the lines of nomothetic travel though timespaces, ideally reaching high forms of ideal friction-free universalism. The successful history that has been crumbling down is the Baconian-Cartesian-Newtonian epistemology, a kind of mathematical conception of the universe. The conventionally famous point of reference is the “two cultures” of C. P. Snow (1965), or the two ways, nomothetic and idiographic, the naturalized binarism and field of pasture Wallerstein proposes to leave behind for the less intelligent.


Be as it may, we still have, don’t we?, the institutionality of the generic model of the humanities on the one hand, idiographic epistemology, seeking and finding particularities, bemoaning the limited utility of all generalities and generally promoting something like an empathetic, even ethical understanding. And you have the generic model of the natural sciences promoting the nomothetic simplicity of universals working their way happily across time and space. The social sciences are in between these two modalities. This is the crisis of the social sciences, the “bad middle” so to speak, which has to become good soon, still in some kind of irresolution. Wallerstein calls for the renewal of the crisis of the social sciences in ways that are comparable in my mind, also politically, to a figure such as Roberto Mangabeira Unger. The attitude is “to cavil at the idea of universal generalization.” You would have to do both, generalize and particularize. Put yourself in the dramatic formula of “someone tied to two horses galloping in opposite direction” (p. 19).


Wallerstein speaks accordingly of a series of disciplinary splits that “seemed plausible in the late nineteenth century”: past (history) and present (economics, political science and sociology); the West and the rest of the world (anthropology), and another one, the restrictive split, “valid only for the modern Western world between the logic of the market (economics), the state (politics) and civil society (society)” (p. 20). There is mash-up, also “messiness,” and pluralization accordingly, and this type of neat taxonomy appears no longer viable, particularly after 1945 with the poaching and blurring of boundaries and the challenges we must imagine coming internally from epistemic fields as well as externally from different political configurations, for example, Cold-War bipolarity to increasing post-Cold-War poly-centrism. Hence, “bye, bye” to the tripartite world arrangement! We Is it possible to point fingers in the direction of who is profiting from these muddy waters?

Sir Isaac Newton, aged 46

It appears that we are moving towards a gerrymandering of world dimensions making easy epistemological insides and political forces outside less plausible. “Cultural studies” is invoked, but left under-developed, as one abstract catalyst of “disorder” holding the hand of natural-science successes typified by Prigogine. The Nixonian moment signifies this gradual cultural-studies emergence of ignored groups or “minority” sectors, which we must imagine typified within the conventional U.S. typologies.  There is the kind of automatic assumption of minority representativeness that is not so easily embraced by scholars not entirely devoted to internal US situations, Slavoj Zizek is one salient name. And yet clearly these are initiatives bringing light to social-group affiliation and inter-subjectivity also in relation to knowledge production inside the conventional liberal environment that historically imposed the theoretical social indifference of assimilation.



The invocation of indeterminacy frontally challenges the sciences built upon Newtonian premises explicitly in relation to the subject-object-split of the knowledge production and the political interests of the subject supposed to know within inherited positions of relational privilege apropos social groups in the U.S. If something is indeterminate and uncertain, something is open for intervention as opposed to close and dead-certain, historically for the worse. One must learn to appreciate uncertainty in Uncertainties of Knowledge in this way. One crucial issue is also that of outlet, whether bureaucratic-capitalist institutions of higher learning will hold back or follow suit with some of the transformations wanted by Wallerstein as soon as they feel social control and policy enforcement slipping away, and further margin-profit deterioration inside the general shrinkage. And this history is still very much with us in the present (“Downturn still squeezes colleges and universities” by Andrew Martin, Jan. 10, 2013,


The model division is under attack (p. 21) and the attackers are gathered under “complexity studies” by two signs, “science,” sign which must be understood as the dominant mode of natural science since the 1700 century culminating in Newtonian mechanics, and the sign of “cultural studies” or “philosophy” attacking universalism by the sign of the “humanities” which are wanted eroded, also by cultural studies. How easy is it to gather examples of anti-humanities animosity in the American street! Yet again, the sign “uncertainty” is symptom of a drastic turn inside which equilibrium is seen as exceptional and the emphasis on future temporality makes things intrinsically indeterminate with a predilection for entropy and bifurcations, and chaos coming out of order. The clash is between universalisms –or even monotheisms and perhaps one has to include the term in the plural form—and particularities –and perhaps one can identify them as paganisms and idolatries. If we happen to be in the antipodes of any seduction of a Hegelian synthesis, Wallerstein still wants to “permit a reconstructed universalism” within an “acceptable global culture” (p. 147).


The intellectual and organizational template is called into question, accordingly, and there is no easy way out of not pushing it to reach the validity of boundaries within social science, the epistemological divide between the “two cultures,” or the triplet super-categories of the natural sciences, humanities and the social sciences. The castle of cards is being blown away. Where will they land? Wallerstein’s push is for a rethinking towards a reunification of a new epistemology negatively articulated, i.e. neither-nor (nomothetic-idiographic, universalist-particularist, determinist-relativist, p. 25). Wallerstein speaks of the epochal feeling of being “overwhelmed by a sense of confusion coming from the exhaustion of the geoculture that has prevailed for some two centuries” (p. 26). It is easy to see that there are “profound implications for the organization of the university system, that is, the faculties” (p. 27), and for the organization of scholarly research. Let us underline the two nouns in the plural.



Issues of normativity and applicability quickly come to the fore. Institutionality will bring its pressures, interests, gridlocks. Issues: 1) reproducibility of an eternally changing and real universe moving it beyond a mere collection of snapshots; 2) the debunking of the apparent neutrality of the perceiver and the perceived, but also not falling for the solipsism of “that is your perspectivism and this is mine;” 3) some type of resolution of the general point of the comparativism of similarities and differences; 4) the relationship between the universe and the parts, the theoretical contemplation of the seamlessness of the universe and the meaningful units of analysis, and perhaps one might speak of the general or abstract formula of the subjects and objects of knowledge production doing things within timespatial parameters.



In relation to the increasingly disorienting configuration of the disciplines, one can imagine disciplinary dispersion within existing networks and classical divides of the aforementioned two cultures, existing policy enforcers and mounting fragility perhaps turning to plasticity and suppleness. Nothing to lose that has not already been lost. “Gender” is spoken of as a category not yet fully exploded (p. 33). Wallerstein speaks of the “scissors” (p. 31), or budget cuts and of the “secondarization” of university education, the expansion of the student base, the customer and the consumer, and the tightening of financial resources, reduced resources creeping up with impudent economic determinism on the breakdown of strict disciplinary boundaries. The period of expansion for the university, the virtual singular locus of the production and reproduction of knowledge, Wallerstein’s long nineteenth century, finds its culmination point in between 1945 and 1970 (the current upsurge of the student population is not talked about).


Once more, there will be endogenous and exogenous forces taking place inside hermeneutic circles and the university setting is, doubts any one?, one area of social struggle. Wallerstein speaks of the current impasse in relation to the tri-model division of the natural sciences, humanities and the social sciences. Will we be moving towards intensified dispersions and greater reunifications? (job-market nomenclature is rich and not uplifting, part-time, seasonal, sessional, collateral, adjunct, floating, and it is surely worrisome the indelicate lack of sensibility of the American English apropos the below-the-living-wage systemic normality of academic labor). Uncertainties of Knowledge points fingers in that direction but does not dwell there.

crustal thickness


There is little to nil presence of the category of the aesthetic, of recent revival lately, in Wallerstein. And this is another way of saying that the language of postmodernism is radically missing (I recall Jameson’s invitation to consider future scenarios, Wallerstein’s nobility obliges and his future of uncertainty is certainly ominous and arresting in its openness). It is up to us and you can trust yourself to judge how you do things and how others have been doing it so far. Will they change and how and why? The language of postcolonialism is not included per se in Uncertainties of Knowledge, but the non-West dimension is always latent in our author who cut his teeth in political sociology and African studies (the Argentinian “dependency-theory” Raúl Prebish is credited with the increasing importance of the concept of “periphery,” and this is an important Latin American genealogy to explore in our near future, p. 91). He also makes the connection between Braudel’s “world-economy” and the German geographer Fritz Rorig in the 1920s (p. 88), and this is a second line of exploration giving concrete content to the association of geopolitics and studies, the kind of inevitable tension that Wallerstein’s work makes desirable.


The end of certainties in the social sciences lands in the modern world system or the capitalist world economy. This is the grounding of our modern global modernity. Its primary “cultural” message: the denial of the right of either religious or political authorities to proclaim truth by themselves alone. The total rejection runs into a total, theoretical egalitarianism, and yet in practice scientists “did not mean it,” and their specialization was not all that different from those religious and political groups (quite an endeavor would be to try to see the intersections between the Kuhn of epistemic revolutions with a focus on the natural sciences, Rorty’s dialogue with Kuhn defending a multi-disciplinary pragmatism inside the miniscule terrain of “American philosophy” and the humanities, politically social-democratic in character, and Wallestein’s projections of future uncertainty and epistemic ecumenicism more on the accusatory disposition than both authors, as far as I can see).


The challenges to the Newtonian model of science are built upon linearity, equilibrium and [the unthinkability of] reversibility. In place of determinism, deterministic chaos, in place of linearity, move away from equilibrium and towards bifurcation, in place of “integer” (sic, integral?) dimensions, fractals. The formula of the “arrow of time” is symptomatic of such impossibility of reversibility. The inherited assumption that “science” is fundamentally different from humanistic thought holds less and less the grip of the collective imagination. For someone who is not historically coming from groups self-described as “cultural studies,” Wallestein appears sympathetic to the general-cause of minority-group representation (there is no engagement with any other idea, other than the anti-humanist evacuation of the sciences of man). There is accordingly what I might want to describe as the culturization of knowledge practices away from such Newtonian model. The adjective “cultural” appears to want to mean something like “total,” and yet it rest uncomfortably in some form of skepticism of universalist tendencies. Wallerstein speaks of “geoculture” proper to the modern world system –if the language of postmodernism is here missing, the language of civilizations is also missing). Forget about high, middlebrow and low modalities, put textual thicknesses in brackets, “culture” conveys to me here something of the natural-science sense of culture, think of microscopic creatures swimming in a defined habitat, or microsystem, or soup. It is that and less great authors manufacturing cathedrals of creativity worthy of collective admiration. If the challenge to science comes also from within science, Wallerstein always wants to include the social dimension within intellectual endeavors of the intelligence (is coterminous, isomorphic the assumption of the relationship of mind and world in Wallerstein’s vision of the new social science accordingly?). Would he accept this type of generic simple sentence away from time and place? Science is thus part of culture (p. 38). And “we have reached the cultural end of certainties.” The point appears to be to continue pushing that ending without guarantees.

ferdinand braudel


In moving away from Newtonian mechanism, the vision of the universe that emerges feels distinctly more Heraclitus than Parmenides: “like a flowing river in eternally endless flux” (p. 39). Try to catch your sustainable truth there, or here, accordingly. Uncertainties of Knowledge has its cognitive mapping, but it is de-emphasized, following Braudel, in the generic privileging of duration within big units. Yes, geography matters obviously, but what matters mostly is the development of such truth calculations made possible and operationable within its acceptable big-size TimeSpace parameters, likely fluctuating and possibly bifurcating over time. We may imagine the cohabitation of different truths accordingly and the “excessive” claims to larger claims. Logically, “very little of much interest can be stated that is “universal” (p. 40). The attitude of looking for regularities comes quickly to the realization that the systems constantly move away from equilibrium, hence the increasing emphasis is for transitions and transformations, for systemic bifurcations. What makes the system interesting is the limit at which the system may fail or break down. Three moments of time in the analysis of any historical social system: genesis or the onset, the ongoing operation, and the crisis or sunset. Dualistic, if not Manichean set-up, fraught with misapprehensions depicted amusingly by C. P. Snow, the conventional modus operandi: “classic” idiographic critiques of the generalizers, “classic” nomothetic critiques of the particularizers, which Wallerstein wants to transcend with a self-imposed methodological guideline in the search for cyclical rhythms and secular trends (p. 44). Major causalities and final teleologies are put in abeyance, this is “one game at a time” as the dedicated, intense coach tells his team pursuing the final stretch of the championship, but culmination is inexistent in Uncertainties of Knowledge inside which spatial considerations appear less prominent, despite the theoretical conjuncture denoted by the notion of “timespace.” There is however a bit of an over-reliance on the Franco-German-American reduction of the critical First-World intelligence, perhaps pedagogically so.



Knowledge about complex systems is always already approximate and moving towards higher levels of probability of recurrence. Wallerstein’s complex-system knowledge proposal is the description of the rhythms of the operational features of a system, what allows a system to be called a system (p. 45). Knowledge is predictive power, the possibility of prediction of what is likely to happen. And this is when the inspiration of Braudel comes into being, keeping historical events within systemic bounds, like dust to the desert of eventuality. Events must fit into a structure of meaningfulness or intelligibility which is not immutable, the longue durée. Crisis points happen when the secular trend or the arrow of time cannot continue in a linear fashion. Hence, linearity must happen no matter what and bifurcation is the “solution” to such crisis. Uncertainties have to be distinguished between major and minor, the first ones touching on the core of the structure of the system (p. 47). Wallerstein speaks of our living present as a moment of profound instability, of increasingly intense fluctuations and of likely bifurcations in the immediate future.



His temporal suggestion is that larger uncertainties happen “one every 500 years” (p. 48). This is our blessing, or curse, if you wish, since we will be in the midst of it, almost like a tsunami or a tornado.  This systemic bifurcation, or real upheaval, is historically unrelated to the so-called “revolutions.” Uncertainties of Knowledge defends that it is happening in the timeframe of the 1970s until the 2050. Readers are expected to assume a global crisis –systemic and hermeneutic. The crisis is out there but also inside our heads as we go about thinking with no options for claiming exceptional privilege of hermeneutic comfort zone. It is the end of the world as we know it (p. 49) and the new historical system will have to require the escort service of a better type of epistemology leaving behind the previously mentioned disciplinary splits. We no longer know accordingly the world in which we live, living as we are “in the eye of the hurricane” (p. 50). We must brace ourselves for a period of great social turmoil (p. 51).



Our 83-year-old social scientist speaks of structural changes appertaining to the massive profit squeeze. He underlines three vectors that cannot continue growing in linear fashion: 1/ the secular rise of real wages across world-economy as a whole; 2/the growing destruction of the environment due to the institutionalized externalization of costs; 3/ the fiscal crises of states. The decline of the legitimacy of state structure is linked directly by Wallerstein to the disillusionment with the possibility of reducing polarization of the world system. The crisis of the structures of knowledge in the social sciences has to do with the limited success in predictive modalities of “social engineering,” besides the dim survival option involved in long-term compatibility with the social environment. Wallerstein does not hesitate to speak of the “geoculture “ –thus in the grandiose synthetic singularity— slipping away hermeneutically and also politically from the institutionality of divorce between science and “philosophy,” or the humanities (p. 51). Wallerstein’s advocacy is for the renaissance of the desire for the epistemological unity of knowledge responding forcefully to the structural crises of the capitalist world system in the critical juncture. The cavalier argument of monothetically oriented social scientists clings to the “arrow of time” (no “time machine” as in some futuristic novels of reversibility, the expression credited to Arthur Eddington, p. 53), and how such nomothetic search for predictabilities and regularities tended to ignore [the singularity of] history, but also tended to “deplore historicism” (p. 53), or l’histoire événementielle. If events are dust (p. 75), it is the landscape of the desert that Wallerstein, after Braudel, is after. Call it economicist if you wish: Wallerstein registers the criticisms of Brenner and Aronowitz (pp. 94ff, 101ff). One of these must be the equation of modernity qua Americanism, typically oblivious of its own trajectory. This naturalism is less so by the time I write these pages, among its critiques the ones put together by our American social scientist, who nonetheless renews calls for convergence of complexity studies and cultural studies if you wish— or “new science” and “philosophy”– moving towards a common epistemological base. “So, here we are today, on the verge of a major epistemological restructuring, a reunification” (p. 55).



A desire for universalism of a different kind from the “geoculture” (p. 142) enters through the main door, or perhaps the back door of the institutions: “this is a call for universal entry into social science” (p. 56), which implies reconstruction and the creation of an “acceptable global culture” (p. 147). It appears that there are universalisms and universalisms and some are more desirable than others. With the disciplines in a bind, in a dubious condition of well-being, what we desperately need is a collective intellectual discussion (p. 56). Is it taking place? Where? We are still by 2004 a long way from this objective (p. 57). Are we any better today eight years later? Here, Wallerstein oficializes once again the hermeneutic inspiration of the French historian Braudel against American claims to historicist knowledge, Robert Darnton (p. 68) for example, not to mention middlebrow foreign-affair bastardizations such as Robert D. Kaplan’s The Revenge of Geography (2012) analyzed in a previous culture bite. Wallerstein returns here to writings originally published in French in 1958, in English forty four years ago, in 1969, already speaking of the crises of the human sciences, to which we can add illustrious pedigree of European names such as William Dilthey, Edmund Husserl, Ortega y Gasset, for example the little read text about the notion of principle in Leibniz. Wallerstein speaks of the importance of his endeavor in the Gulbenkian Commission, which must be put side by side the name of Jean Francois Lyotard, not included in Uncertainties of Knowledge and I remain guilty, for now, of the previous reduction of Franco-German vision with one minor exception. No doubt that the impulse is to continue going plus ultra along the certain tension between postmodernisms and postcolonialisms, at least within fields of “cultural studies” within the assumed Wallersteinian frame.



The proposal, endorsed by Wallerstein, is for a total history that pays attention to mathematization, narrowing in on locality and yet within a longue durée. The world of academia is not and cannot ever be divorced from the political arena, again politics understood in a richer way than “politics” and the conventional “policy” level in the American English, including ideology critique for example. This means here the end of the world liberal consensus and one must understand the previous adjective in the American idiom since the 1970s (one example of that is Moynihan’s defense of the term to the Papal proclamations against it). Three steps not to leave behind then: numbers, localizations or particularities and larger frames or horizons. Quantification and idiographic thick textures fitting into structural frames of intelligibility in hermeneutic fight over power and knowledge with others: Wallerstein wants to do something to the great epistemological debate of the nomothetic and idiographic disciplines (p. 67). To leave it behind (p. 116). He wants the utopia of an “aufhebung of the nomothetic / idiographic antinomy” (p. 118), and logically what would such outlet or release be if not the coming to terms with the overcoming of the crisis of the modern world-system, the capitalist world-economy? Wallerstein repeats Braudel’s call for an ecumenical council (pp. 61, 61), that he says, it is being actively disregarded and resisted; hence, the reference to the “empty pews” in the subtitle of the fourth chapter. In such empty location, “in the unexcluded middle” (p. 82), the new social sciences will have to learn to ride the “two horses galloping in opposite direction” (p. 19).


Just do not call it “theory” (p. 83), but open-ended analysis. There are two parts to Uncertainties of Knowledge: structures of knowledge and the dilemmas of the disciplines. And the general feeling of shifting floors and general disrelationship inside a geoculture that is barely keeping itself together as well. The end of part one makes a virtue of the skepticisms at labels and brands. Part two dealing with disciplinary dilemmas makes strict theoretical claims feel unintelligent, inelegant rigidities missing on the imperatives, rhythms, etc. of contemporaneity, imagine corsets, telephones attached to walls, bowler hats, horse carriages, Newtonian science, the unreconstructed mustiness of petty-bourgeois humanist undergraduate education in the foreign country, the assigned gender roles in rural areas before industrialization, “literature” before digitality, courtship rituals before instant text-messaging, etc. The wager is for historical social science to leave behind conventions of history and sociology, anthropology and “other dubious disciplines.” There is no linguistic preoccupation made explicit per se in the text and the jargons of authenticity here lock horns in the imperial languages with Spanish in a discreet, secondary position (Wallerstein’s important collaboration with the Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano is already well known, I simply want to mark it here).



In the manner of an uncertain conclusion, then. This is perhaps a valid joke in the abstract in the end. To the question, “do you want me?” The beautiful, if dubious creature responds, “I am of an uncertain frame of mind about it.” The key thing would then be to see to the meaning of want and to the nature of the uncertainty, whether it is indeterminate in its future-projection sense, open for debate say, and also to maneuver, or whether it is euphemism for the negative, no, never in a million years, the dumb closing of the American mind. And yet: never say never. There is something, I submit to you, in the uncertainty in Uncertainties of Knowledge that is leaning more towards the first option befitting an eagerness towards hermeneutic and also political dimensions, a wanting to know, shortly. And remember the initial dictum that this is not love at first sight and twenty years later, it is no love affair, and money appears to be out of the question. And yes, the silly joke wishes to emphasize the crucial dimension of intersubjectivity, which perhaps Uncertainties of Knowledge failed to personalize convincingly or strongly enough, except fleetingly, in relation to scholars of importance and inevitable debates and quarrels, for example in relation to a rather famished picture of the cultural studies, clearly not the apple in the eye of our great American intellectual, here mostly minority mouthpiece. The form of the uncertainty always already brings with it its (im-)possible content, function, and the inevitable timespaces inside which the possibility of a fruitful and joyful relationship may happen, assuming that the speaking subject is asking the beautiful and dubious creature the question of interest in earnest, unless it is within the sorry conditions of the part-time, adjunct, collateral, seasonal work-garbage contract. Always contextualize, always historicize, in the home of the brave, light on memory, accordingly.



Wallerstein is not your average academic and conventional intellectual, and it is clear that these two dimensions, academic and intellectual, are very different, particularly in the current institutional sliding scale. The vision afforded in Uncertainties of Knowledge is intelligently self-referential and it is big and it has to be both things at the same time: self-referential apropos university conditions of and for knowledge production and big since we cannot opt out, at least for now, of the impositions put together in certain and uncertain terms by the modern world-system or capitalist frame. This bigness has been institutionalized according to false binaries (nomothetic/idiographic, universalism/particularism, global local, etc.) and this is, at least to our courageous intellectual, on its way out as we speak. Neither everything is specific, nor everything significant is irrelevant of timespace configurations, but both at the same time inevitably tight in the handkerchief of mental process and sustainable vision of seeking something systemic at its point of fracture, its limits, its breakdowns, its disorders: this is the abstract, if tense space of the social sciences Wallerstein wants to defend with all its uncertainties and there are surely social and political dimensions attached to the convergence disposition labeled as complexity studies and cultural studies.

Escher hands


It is clear that we have not picked our conjuncture to be one of contraction and austerity. The scientific peak: the timeframe of 1945-1965 (p. 151). In shorthand, we live in the gradual decline of the liberal / Whig vision of history and worldview (p. 153), in the moment of relative American decline Wallerstein has written about in other works. We may wish to contextualize and historicize such decline, particularly if we happen to be in the home of the brave for the duration, side by side the resurgence of the ethnic category provided by the insufficiently (neo-)liberal wing of the academic and political establishments according to Glazer and Moynihan in the 1970s for example. Against this immediate history,  we are all riding new racial orders lurking in the wings round the institutions and its corners, the streets and the staircases. The awkwardness of the conventional U.S. social typology constitutes our evanescent present tense, whether leaving behind with the ebbing tide lots of sand and a few native and foreign names, broken shells and boots, shipwrecks and disciplinary dilemmas and, it is safe to say, degrading working conditions for the immense academic majority. You only have to look around and do a quick “racial profiling” of the subjects of knowledge production inside and outside the conventional tripartite of the humanities, the social sciences and the natural sciences to confirm or deny such “ethnic uprising.” How does it feel to pass through the American institutionality of the foreign humanities? If you see something, say something: the implied adjective “suspicious” is missing, but this is the expectation, to call it exactly as you see it, and to whom, to the authorities?, while wanting other, better, utopian things in your lifetime. Pushing the epistemic envelope, Wallerstein introduces a funny visual analogy to try to get us out of false dichotomies:

Escher-Drawing Detail

If all social life is both systemic and historic, global and local, then social science resembles an Escher drawing in which whether we go up the staircase or down makes no difference, since in either case we shall be on the same staircase going in the same direction. The point is to be conscious of this, and thus to try and sketch the whole staircase in correct detail. The staircase is there, but not, of course, forever (p. 149).


Ascending to some universal or descending to some particularity or specificity, both or neither. You can go up complexity studies and ideally good varieties of cultural studies, or you can go down to the basement levels of bureaucratic logic in the institutions of higher learning currently undergoing liquidation sales. The Escher-drawing image inevitably allows for the Kafkaesque possibility inside  nightmarish environments officially not for profit eviscerated by a logic that is emphatically not beautifully linguistic and expansively anti-intellectual, often in your broken mother tongue, adding insult to injury, in environments often populated by “white ethnics” –the nomenclature and the harsh message originally from the neo-conservative Novak–  tolerating the (foreign) accent in the culture, and I have two decades of experience behind this assertion. So, in the meantime I must squeeze the lemon of uncertainty and make lemonade, and so must you, whether in the natural sciences, the social sciences or the humanities. Convergence is coming your way, whether you like it or not, and hopefully it is  not only liquidation sales.


Since my acquaintance with the natural sciences is indirect and anecdotal, I must say that I see fewer options for the display of a critical type of sociology, but perhaps one has to take a closer look. In the (foreign) humanities, everything has become, by contrast, cultural studies, yet the success of the label is far from being a good sign according to what Wallerstein would like to see happening. But again, perhaps it has always been that way and one needs to tough it out and continue writing and thinking as though nothing was ever going to change dramatically in one’s lifetime in the geoculture of Americanism of increasingly limited appeal, epistemically and politically speaking. Wallerstein helps us here, I still feel. Cling to uncertainty. Squeeze the lemon. Make lemonade. Look for lemons in the warehouse? ¿Pides peras al olmo? Your best options? Any plan B? Any way out? Any chance of a profitable relationship with the aforementioned beautiful and dubious creature? There has got to be a corrective to the mistake in the belief that the university space is still analytically devoted to vigorous knowledge production and beautifully courageous diction. Something will have to happen going up or down the staircases. If Wallerstein speaks this to you, you say what back to him?

Immanuel Wallerstein

Questions, comments?,