» A moral vacuum

The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, provides a unique and deeply disturbing insight into the ethical deadlock of global capitalism.  Can the monstrous orgy of torture and killing be publicly celebrated, even decades after it took place, as an ordinary acceptable pleasurable activity? 

The documentary The Act of Killing (Final Cut Film Production, Copenhagen) premiered in 2012 at the Telluride film festival and was also shown at Toronto International Film Festival and others. The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, provides a unique and deeply disturbing insight into the ethical deadlock of global capitalism.

The film – shot in Medan, Indonesia, in 2007 – reports on a case of obscenity which reaches the extreme: a film, made by Anwar Congo and his friends, who are now respected politicians, but were gangsters and death squad leaders playing a key role in the 1966 killing of ca 2.5 million alleged Communist sympathizers, mostly ethnic Chinese. The Act of Killing is about “killers who have won, and the sort of society they have built.” After their victory, their terrible acts were not relegated to the status of “dirty secret,” the root crime whose traces are to be obliterated – on the contrary, they boast openly about the details of their massacres (the way to strangle a victim with a wire, how to cut a throat, how to rape a woman in the most pleasurable way…). In October 2007, Indonesian state TV produced a talk show celebrating Anwar and his friends – in the middle of the show, after Anwar says that their killings were inspired by gangster movies, the beaming moderator turns to the cameras and says: “Amazing! Let’s give Anwar Congo a round of applause!” When she asks Anwar if he fears revenge by the victims’ relatives, Anwar answers: “They can’t. When they raise their heads, we wipe them out!” His henchman adds: “We’ll exterminate them all!”, and the audience explodes into exuberant cheers… one has to see this to believe it. But what makes this extraordinary is also the level of reflexivity between documentary and fiction – the film is, in a way, a documentary about the real effects of living a fiction:

As Final Cut Film Production writes: “To explore the killers’ astounding boastfulness, and to test the limits of their pride, we began with documentary portraiture and simple re-enactments of the massacres. But when we realized what kind of movie Anwar and his friends really wanted to make about the genocide, the re-enactments  became more elaborate. And so we offered Anwar and his friends the opportunity to dramatize the killings using film genres of their choice (western, gangster, musical). That is, we gave them the chance to script, direct and star in the scenes they had in mind when they were killing people.”

They experienced their activity as an enactment of their cinematic models.

Did they reach the limits of the killers’ “pride”? They barely touched it when they proposed to Anwar that he play the victim of his tortures in a reenactment. When a wire is placed around his neck, he interrupts the performance and says: “Forgive me for everything I’ve done.” But this is more a temporary relapse which did not lead to any deeper crisis of conscience – his heroic pride immediately takes over again. Probably, the protective screen which prevented a deeper moral crisis was the cinematic screen itself: just as in their past real killings and torture, they experienced their activity as an enactment of their cinematic models. This enabled them to experience reality itself as a fiction. As great admirers of Hollywood – they started their careers as organizers and controllers of the black market in peddling cinema tickets – they played a role in their massacres, imitating a Hollywood gangster, cowboy or even a musical dancer.

Here the Lacanian “big Other” enters, not only by virtue of the fact that the killers modeled their crimes on cinematic imaginary, but also and above all the much more important fact of society’s moral vacuum: a kind of symbolic texture (the set of rules which draws a line between what is publicly acceptable and what is not) of which a society must be composed if even a minimal level of public shame (which would compel the perpetrators to treat their acts as a “dirty secret”) is to be suspended. Can the monstrous orgy of torture and killing be publicly celebrated, even decades after it took place, as an ordinary acceptable pleasurable activity?

The trap to be avoided here is, of course, the obvious one of putting the blame either directly on Hollywood or on the “ethical primitiveness” of Indonesia. The starting point should rather be the dislocating effects of capitalist globalization which, by undermining the “symbolic efficacy” of traditional ethical structures, creates such a moral vacuum.

All communal ends are subordinated to the private interests of individuals.

However, the status of the “big Other” deserves a closer analysis. Let us compare The Act of Killing to an incident which drew a lot of attention in the US some decades ago: a woman was beaten and slowly killed by a violent perpetrator in the courtyard of a big apartment block in Brooklyn, New York. Of the more than 70 witnesses who clearly saw what was going on from their windows, not one called the police – why not? As the later investigation established, the most prevalent excuse by far was that each witness thought someone else had already called them or would surely do so. This data should not be moralistically dismissed as a mere excuse for moral cowardice and egotistic indifference. What we encounter here is also the function of the big Other – this time not as Lacan’s “subject supposed to know,” but as what one could call “the subject supposed to call the police.” The fatal mistake of the witnesses of the slow Brooklyn killing was to misread the symbolic (fictional) function of the “subject supposed to call the police” as an empirical claim of existence.

When individuals want to sacrifice their narrow private interests and work directly for the common good, what suffers is the common good itself.

Does this mean that, through the gradual dissolution of our ethical substance, we are simply regressing to individualist egotism? Things are much more complex. We often hear that our ecological crisis is the result of our short-term egotism: obsessed with immediate pleasures and wealth, we forgot about the common good. However, it is here that Walter Benjamin’s notion of capitalism as religion becomes crucial: a true capitalist is not a hedonistic egotist. He is, on the contrary, fanatically devoted to his task of multiplying his wealth, ready to neglect his health and happiness, not to mention the prosperity of his family and the well-being of the environment, for it. There is thus no need to evoke some high-ground moralism and trash capitalist egotism – against capitalist perverted fanatical dedication. It is enough to evoke a good measure of simple egotistical and utilitarian concerns.

In other words, the pursuit of what Rousseau calls the natural amour-de-soi requires a highly civilized level of awareness. The individual caught in global market capitalism necessarily perceives itself as a self-interested hedonist “human animal.” This self-perception is a necessary illusion.

In other words, self-interested egotism is not the brutal fact of our societies but their ideology. The ideology philosophically articulated in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit towards the end of the chapter on Reason, entitled “the spiritual kingdom of animals,” Hegel’s name for the modern civil society in which human animals are caught in self-interested interaction. As Hegel put it, the achievement of modernity was to allow “the principle of subjectivity to attain fulfillment in the self-sufficient extreme of personal particularity.” 

The reign of this principle makes possible civil society as the domain in which autonomous human individuals associate with each other through the institutions of free-market economy in order to satisfy their private needs: all communal ends are subordinated to the private interests of individuals, they are consciously posited and calculated with the goal of maximizing the satisfaction of these interests. What matters for Hegel here is the opposition of the private and common perceived by those on whom Hegel relies (Mandeville, Smith) as well as by Marx: individuals perceive the common domain as something that should serve their private interests (like a liberal who thinks of the State as a protector of private freedom and safety), while individuals, in pursuing their narrow goals, effectively serve the communal interest. We become aware that, the more individuals act egotistically, the more they contribute to the common wealth. The paradox is that when individuals want to sacrifice their narrow private interests and work directly for the common good, what suffers is the common good itself. Hegel loves to tell historical anecdotes about a good king or prince whose very dedication to the common good brought his country to ruin. The properly philosophical novelty of Hegel was to further determine this “contradiction” along the lines of the tension between the “animal” and the “spiritual”: the universal spiritual substance, the “work of all and everyone,” emerges as the result of the “mechanical” interaction of individuals. What this means is that the very “animality” of the self-interested “human animal” (the individual participating in the complex network of civil society) is the result of the long historical process by which medieval hierarchic society was transformed into modern bourgeois society. It is thus the very fulfillment of the principle of subjectivity – the radical opposite of animality – which brings about the reversal of subjectivity into animality.

Traces of this shift can be detected everywhere today, especially in the fast-developing Asian countries where capitalism exerts a most brutal impact. Bertolt Brecht’s The Exception and the Rule (a learning play written in 1929-30) tells the story of a rich merchant who, with his porter (“coolie”), crosses the Yahi Desert (yet another of Brecht’s fictional Chinese places) to close an oil deal. When the two get lost in the desert and their water supplies are running low, the merchant mistakenly shoots the coolie, thinking he was being attacked when the coolie was actually offering him some water that he still had left in his bottle. Later, in a court, the merchant is acquitted: the judge concludes that the merchant had every right to fear a potential threat from the coolie, so he was justified in shooting the coolie in self-defense regardless of whether there was an actual threat. Since the merchant and his coolie belong to different classes, the merchant had all reason to expect hatred and aggression from him – this is the typical situation, the rule, while the coolie’s kindness was an exception.

Is this story yet another of Brecht’s ridiculous Marxist simplifications? No, judging from a report from today’s real China:

“In Nanjing, half a decade ago, an elderly woman fell while getting on a bus. Newspaper reports tell us that the 65-year-old woman broke her hip. At the scene, a young man came to her aid; let us call him Peng Yu, for that is his name. Peng Yu gave the elderly woman 200 RMB (at that time enough to buy three hundred bus tickets) and took her to the hospital. Then, he continued to stay with her until the family arrived. The family sued the young man for 136,419 RMB. Indeed, the Nanjing Gulou District Court found the young man to be guilty and ordered him to pay 45,876 RMB. The court reasoned, ‘according to common sense’, that because Peng Yu was the first off the bus, in all probability he had knocked over the elderly woman. Further, he actually had admitted his guilt, the court reasoned, by staying with the elderly woman at the hospital. It being the case that a normal person would not be as kind as Peng Yu claimed he was.” 

Is this incident not exactly parallel to Brecht’s story? Peng Yu helped the old lady out of simple compassion or decency, but since such a display of kindness is not “typical,” not the rule (“a normal person would not be as kind as Peng Yu claimed he was”), it was interpreted by the court as a proof of Peng Yu’s guilt, and he was appropriately punished. Is this a ridiculous exception? Not so, according to the People’s Daily (the government newspaper) which, in an online opinion poll, asked a large sample of young people what they would do if they were to see a fallen elderly person: “87% of young people would not help. Peng Yu’s story echoes the surveillance of the public space. People will only help when a camera was present.” What such a reluctance to help signals is a change in the status of public space: “The street is an intensely private place and seemingly the words public and private make no sense”. In short, being in a public space does not only entail being together with other unknown people – in moving among them, I am still within my private space, engaged in no interaction with or recognition of them. In order to count as public, the space of my co-existence and interaction with others (or the lack of it) has to be covered by security cameras.

The ruthless egotism of each of the individuals.

Another sign of this same change can be found at the opposite end of watching people die in public and doing nothing – the recent trend of public sex in hard-core porn. There are more and more films which show a couple (or more persons) engaged in erotic games up to full copulation in heavily frequented public spaces (on a public beach, inside a streetcar or train, at a bus or train station, in the open space of a shopping mall…), and the interesting feature is that a large majority of foreigners who pass by (pretend to) ignore the scene – a minority throws a discrete glance at the couple, even fewer make a sarcastic obscene remark. Again, it is as if the copulating couple was in its private space, thus we should not be concerned with their intimacies.

In China people will only help when a camera was present.

This brings us back to Hegel’s “spiritual animal kingdom” – that is to say, who effectively behaves like this, passing by dying fellows or copulating others in blessed ignorance? Animals, of course. This fact in no way entails that ridiculous conclusion that we are somehow “regressing” to the animal level: the animality with which we are dealing here – the ruthless egotism of each of the individuals pursuing his/her private interest – is the paradoxical result of the most complex network of social relations (market exchange, social mediation of production), and the fact that individuals themselves are blind to this complex network points towards its ideal (“spiritual”) character: in the civil society structured by market, abstraction rules more than ever in the history of humanity. In contrast to nature, the market competition of “wolves against wolves” is thus the material reality of its opposite, of the “spiritual” public substance which provides the background and base for this struggle among private animals.

It is often said that today, with our total exposure to the media, our culture of public confessions and instruments of digital control, private space is disappearing. One should counter this commonplace assertion with the opposite claim: it is the public space proper which is disappearing. The person who displays on the web his/her naked images or intimate data and obscene dreams is not an exhibitionist: exhibitionists intrude upon the public space, while those who post their naked images on the web remain in their private space and are just expanding it to include others. And, back to The Act of Killing, the same goes for Anwar and his colleagues: they are privatizing the public space in a sense which is much more threatening than economic privatization. _

Quoted from Final Cut Film Production publicity material.

 G.W.F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1991, par. 260.

 Michael Yuen, “China and the Mist of Complicated Things” (text given by the author).


Director Joshua Oppenheimer,

Denmark/Norway/UK, 115 min.

No Comments Yet

Comments are closed